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UMass men’s basketball team fully aware of La Salle’s ability

PHILADELPHIA — After last week’s upsets of Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, La Salle is being hailed as a surprise story and an upstart contender in the deep and talented Atlantic 10 men’s basketball race.

The University of Massachusetts doesn’t need any convincing of the Explorers’ legitimacy. La Salle has been a thorn in UMass’ side, especially at Tom Gola Arena, since before coach Derek Kellogg was hired.

The Minutemen (13-5, 3-2 A-10) have lost seven of eight games to the Explorers, including four straight in Philadelphia where they’ll play today at 7 p.m.

“It’s in our mind. Losing to those guys two times last year left a bad taste in our mouths,” UMass junior guard Chaz Williams said. “We just want to go down there and play hard and at least come out with a victory.”

It won’t be easy. After dropping its second game of the season to Central Connecticut State at home, La Salle (14-5, 4-2) has been very good. Its other nonleague losses are to Miami and Patriot League leader Bucknell. In conference play, the Explores lost at Charlotte and at Xavier and beat Richmond and Dayton at home before last week’s upsets. La Salle coach John Giannini downplayed what those wins meant now.

“We beat two great teams, but we know we have so many tough games left on our schedule. It’s not a time to reflect. It’s a time to look forward,” he said. “Last year we were 6-2 in sole possession of first place in the Atlantic 10 halfway through the season. We’ve had success before, but we turned around and went 3-5 the rest of the way. ... There’s so much left it’s ridiculous.”

Giannini said his team’s recent success against UMass wasn’t necessarily a positive.

“We lost to Central Connecticut this year and we beat them by approximately 40 points last year. We lost to Dayton and Charlotte this year and we beat them by double digits last year. We lost to Bucknell and we beat them by 28 points last year. Last year is last year,” Giannini said. “Every team that’s beaten us this year, except for Miami, is a team we’ve beaten last year. Hopefully we’ve learned from those lessons.”

Senior guard Ramon Galloway has played himself into the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year race and might be the favorite if the Explorers stay in the title hunt. His 17.2 points per game is third in the Atlantic 10 and he’s averaging 4.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.4 steals per game.

He’s had plenty of help. Junior point guard Tyreek Duren isn’t far behind at 14.5 ppg to go with his 3.4 assists. Junior guard Tyrone Garland (13.2 ppg), a Virginia Tech transfer, and sophomore Jerrell Wright (10.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg) are also scoring in double figures.

“I think we have to do what we do and do it a little better and not let them get on some runs,” Kellogg said. “They’re a tough matchup. They play three and even sometimes four guards with one big. ... We can’t probably get out and pressure quite as much. It has to be more of a contain defense with our hands high. If they hit those long 3s like Galloway hit last year, it’s something we’ll have to live with.”

Rebounding is a weakness because of La Salle’s tendency to use small lineups, so if the Minutemen can rebound as well as they did against Richmond, another small-lineup squad, they’ll help their chances.

“I feel like I can make a pretty significant impact in this game because they’re pretty thin in the post,” UMass sophomore big man Cady Lalanne said. “I feel like that’s where we can be dominant.”

Kellogg hoped Lalanne was right.

“We have to get the ball inside a little bit more and beat them off the dribble,” he said. “We can’t let their defense create offense for them.”

The Explorers defense has excelled at that all year. La Salle is second in the league, forcing 15.5 turnovers per game.

Williams said the Minutemen needed to build off the energy from Saturday’s come-from-behind win over Richmond.

“If we don’t take steps forward from here, that game don’t mean much,” he said.

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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