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UMass, Ohio matchup pits point guards Chaz Williams, D.J. Cooper

AMHERST — For the University of Massachusetts and Ohio University, Wednesday night’s men’s basketball game pits two teams with high preseason expectations, trying to build some momentum heading into conference play.

For casual observers, the game is an opportunity to see two of the nation’s best point guards.

Minuteman junior floor general Chaz Williams was looking forward to taking on Bobcats senior D.J. Cooper at 7:30 p.m. at the Mullins Center.

“From what I’ve seen he’s a pretty good player and a pretty good competitor. He’s proven himself in tough games before. It’ll be a good test and a good matchup,” Williams said. “He’s a pretty good passer. He’s a great scorer. He’s just a good all-around point guard, another tough matchup. It should be a good game.”

The 6-foot Cooper (team-high 14 points per game) entered Tuesday ranked seventh in the country with 7.1 assists per game. The 5-foot-9 Williams (team-high 16.3 ppg) wasn’t far behind. His 6.9 assists per game ranked 11th nationally.

“They’re both very good in their own way,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “Cooper does a good job changing speed and changing direction. He’s got a really good skip pass. He can make a big-time play. Chaz is a guy that comes at you for 40 minutes. It’s fun to watch guys that are both really good, but do it different ways. ... (Cooper) is a really, really good player. A lot of the stuff they do runs through him. He’s a really good player with a bright future ahead of him.”

Kellogg said he doesn’t plan to use the matchup to motivate Williams.

“You don’t have to. He’s a competitor,” Kellogg said. “He understands the magnitude of the game and how good this kid is.”

Williams said he was placing greater emphasis on UMass vs. Ohio than Williams vs. Cooper.

“We’ll see where we’re at as a team first of all. It gets us all ready. Guys get geared up for it. It’s going to be a good game. We’re just going to go out and do what we need to do, what coach wants us to do, to go out and execute a win,” Williams said. “This is a big game for us. This is a measurement game to see where we’re at exactly at this point.”

UMass (5-3) and Ohio (7-3) came into the season with unfamiliar expectations and the pressure that accompanied them.

The Bobcats were among the biggest surprises in the 2012 NCAA tournament. After winning the Mid-American Conference tournament, the 13th-seeded Bobcats upset No. 4 Michigan and No. 12 South Florida to earn a spot in the Sweet 16. They almost reached the Elite Eight but fell to No. 1 North Carolina in overtime.

With all five starters back, the Bobcats were the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the MAC again despite losing coach John Groce to Illinois. Under new coach Jim Christian, Ohio won its first six games, including two over Atlantic 10 teams Richmond (73-48) and St. Bonaventure (69-64).

Since then Ohio has lost three of its last four. Ohio fell to Robert Morris and Memphis on the road. After beating Oakland, the Bobcats fell 50-49 to Winthrop at home Saturday.

With his own team saddled with high expectations after last year’s deep NIT run, Kellogg could relate to Ohio’s situation.

“They may even have more expectations, going to the Sweet 16. I think they’re trying to find their way a little bit as we are,” Kellogg said. “These are two teams in transition that have a chance to be pretty good if they get everything straightened out. ... We all know what they accomplished last season and who is on their roster. When you’re looking at your schedule before the year, you know this is going to be a big-time tough game.”

Williams predicted the Minutemen would still fulfill their preseason optimism.

“We haven’t reached our expectations yet. I still feel like we will,” he said. Then quickly added, “Of course we will.”

NOT QUITE A CONFERENCE GAME — As part of its football arrangement with the Mid-American Conference, the UMass athletic department agreed to have its men’s and women’s basketball teams each play four games — two home, two road — against MAC opponents. This is the Minutemen’s first game as part of that deal. UMass travels to Northern Illinois on Dec. 29 and Miami (Ohio) on Jan. 2. It hosts Eastern Michigan on Jan. 5.

BOSTON GARDEN TRIPLEHEADER — Sources at UMass confirmed that negotiations are ongoing between the state’s six Division I programs — UMass, Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, Harvard and Holy Cross — about starting an annual one-day tripleheader, with the opponents rotating from year to year.

The event will likely benefit a Massachusetts-based charity.

MULLINS CENTER DOUBLEHEADER — Wednesday’s game is the second half of a doubleheader. The UMass women’s basketball team (2-8) will host Bowling Green at 5:30 p.m. The Falcons (7-3) arrive on a four-game winning streak.

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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