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Closing stretch key to postseason future of UMass men’s basketball team

AMHERST — Heading into the season, the Atlantic 10 was expected to be tight and it’s lived up to those expectations.

With three games left in the regular season, the seventh-place University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team (17-9, 7-6) could finish as high as second in the Atlantic 10, or it could miss the conference tournament all together.

The A-10 postseason picture got a little bit clearer at the top after Wednesday’s games, but remained muddy in the middle.

By beating Saint Joseph’s, Saint Louis (11-2) became the first team to clinch a bye in the first round of the conference tournament, which starts March 14 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Saint Joseph’s, George Washington and Charlotte all lost Wednesday and dropped into a ninth-place tie St. Bonaventure at 6-7.

SLU, Virginia Commonwealth, Butler, La Salle and Temple have already qualified for the event. UMass needs one win, or a loss by Dayton, to assure itself a spot in the conference tournament.

“I looked at the standings for the first time all year on my own computer today,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “It looks like something that falls out of your oil pan, a big guck of teams kind of stuck together.”

Twelve of the league’s 16 teams earn bids to A-10 tournament, with the top four getting first-round byes. Fordham and Duquesne have already been mathematically eliminated.

“It’s going to be interesting to see which team doesn’t get there when it all shakes out,” Kellogg said. “It could be a team with 17 or 18 wins that doesn’t get to the conference tournament. That shows you the depth of the league.”

Richmond (17-11), Charlotte (18-9) and the Minutemen (17-9) all fit that description.

Kellogg said the last three regular season games — at Xavier Saturday, vs. Butler Thursday, at Rhode Island March 9 — will have a considerable impact on his team’s postseason chances.

“If you want to have some postseason potential whether it’s NCAA tournament or NIT or whatever it might be, the last three games are big,” he said. “We have to play well and come away with a couple of victories.”

DEE DAVIS TO RETURNS TO PRACTICE — According to Cincinnati.com, Xavier point guard Dee Davis, who missed the Musketeers win over Memphis Tuesday, was expected back at practice Thursday, increasing the likelihood that he’ll play against UMass Saturday.

MISCELLANEOUS — Former Minuteman coach Steve Lappas will be on the CBS Sports Network’s broadcast of Saturday’s game. UMass alumnus and former ESPN broadcaster Dave Strader will call the game against Butler next week.

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

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