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UMass men’s hoop awaits first Atlantic 10 test in St. Louis

Saint Louis interim head coach Jim Crews is seen on the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Savannah State Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Saint Louis interim head coach Jim Crews is seen on the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Savannah State Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) Purchase photo reprints »

ST. LOUIS — His team is on a seven-game winning streak coming off its most complete win of the season, but as Atlantic 10 play begins tonight at 9 p.m. at Saint Louis, University of Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg thinks his team needs to be better if it’s going to be a factor in the conference race.

“We’re playing a top 30 team on the road. We have to prove we can play against some of the top teams in the country in our conference. The way our conference is, every game is going to be a battle and a tough game,” Kellogg said. “We have to be better because of the level of some of the teams we’ll be playing. We have to be more consistent. We’ve played some good games and played well at times, but now it has to be consistent. Every single night out you’re playing a team that’s capable of beating you. It’ll be challenging, but I think our guys are ready to play and up for the challenge.

“We’ve improved little by little as the season has gone on,” he continued. “Hopefully we can continue that trend. The next challenge and the next step is to beat some tough teams in our conference. There are 16 of them. There are a lot of chances to beat teams that are nationally considered good teams this year.”

Kellogg will have Sampson Carter available. The junior forward, who missed practice Monday and Tuesday after getting treatment for the hip injury that sidelined him last year, was back at practice Wednesday.

“It was a little sore,” Carter said. “I was banging a lot last game. It’s nothing I can’t handle. ... I know the game really well. I’ve been playing basketball for a long time. If my body doesn’t feel the way I want it to feel, I can do other things besides scoring to keep myself in the game and make winning plays to help my team win.”

Sophomore big man Cady Lalanne was sidelined with a foot injury before conference play started last year. He was eager to get involved.

“This is my first time playing in conference and seeing how it feels, but from what my teammates tell me, everybody has to step it up a little bit more. We have to run a little bit harder and do everything a little bit more,” said Lalanne, who thought Saturday’s effort in a 75-61 win over Eastern Michigan was a good launching pad. “I feel like we’re ready for it. Things are clicking at the right time, right before conference play. Coming off that game is a pretty good way to start conference play.”

Saint Louis (11-3), which reached the second round of the NCAA tournament last season, has had a good year despite a tumultuous offseason. In August, coach Rick Majerus, who had a history of heart issues, took a medical leave of absence to address them. He was replaced by assistant Jim Crews. In November, St. Louis announced Majerus would not return. He died on Dec. 1.

On the court, senior point guard Kwamain Mitchell, who led the Billikens in minutes (31.4) and assists (3.7) last year, suffered a broken foot and missed the first eight games of the season.

Crews saluted his team’s ability to handle the upheaval.

“I think these guys have done a remarkable job this season. They’ve had a lot of different adversities thrown to them throughout the season, which are well documented,” he said. “I’ve been very impressed how they’ve handled tough, tough situations throughout the season.”

The Billikens alternated wins and losses to open the season. After beating South Carolina Upstate, they fell to Santa Clara, 74-62. They bounced back to beat Texas A&M 70-49. SLU sandwiched a win over Southern Illinois between losses to Kansas and Washington.

The Billikens haven’t lost since Washington and carry an eight-game winning streak into tonight’s game. The spurt includes a 60-46 win over then No. 20 New Mexico on Dec. 31. Mitchell’s return could boost them further.

“Kwamain is the type of guy our guys look up to. He’s not full strength right now. He’s not anywhere close to midseason form. He just started practicing and just played a couple games. It’s a good process for us, a step in the right direction,” said Crews, who said Mitchell’s knowledge and leadership could help counteract not being at full speed.

“He’s got great wisdom and great knowledge of our system of play. He’s done a good job of passing that knowledge to other guys. He’s acutely aware of the details we want to emphasize. He not only shows it by example, but passes it along to the other guys. He did a great job when he was hurt doing that.”

Even at partial speed, Mitchell had Kellogg’s attention.

“He gives them one more really experienced ball-handler that can make tough plays and put balls in the basket,” Kellogg said. “It really elevates them with him being healthy. He’s a guy that’s been thought of as a first-team all-conference player and maybe even a player of the year.

The Minutemen (10-3) will try to extend their winning streak to eight games, which would be the longest in Kellogg’s tenure, while snapping a four-game losing streak at Saint Louis.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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