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UMass men's basketball expects difficult opponent in Rhode Island

UMass’ head basketball coach Derek Kellogg yells out to his players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina State in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Friday, Nov. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

UMass’ head basketball coach Derek Kellogg yells out to his players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina State in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Friday, Nov. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo) Purchase photo reprints »

But for the University of Massachusetts (14-6, 4-3 Atlantic 10), which hosts the Rams (1-6 A-10) today at 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center, Rhode Island is a scary opponent.

Not only did URI upset Saint Louis 82-80 in overtime on Jan. 19 for its only league win, but many of those 14 losses have been by narrow margins to good teams. With two minutes left, the Rams trailed then-No. 9 Butler by five points on the road. Three days earlier, they rallied late to get within six of Virginia Commonwealth. Their six conference losses have come by an average of 4.67 points and none have been by more than eight points.

“Every game is a scary game in this conference. You never know with these teams. Records can show one thing, but guys’ talent can show a different thing,” UMass junior guard Chaz Williams said. “You can’t base anything off records. We know how hard it is to win at Saint Louis. To see them do that, stood out to us a lot.”

Minuteman coach Derek Kellogg agreed.

“Even though their record’s not great, the average margin of defeat is like three points with the exception of one or two games. It’s always scary. They’re playing hard and with a lot of confidence and not much to lose,” he said. “They beat Saint Louis on the road which means they can beat just about anybody in the conference and they’ve hung tough with some other really good teams.”

New Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley was pleased with his team’s improvement and thought it would eventually translate into more wins.

“If we keep putting ourselves in position down the stretch of these games where we’re in the hunt and we have a chance to win, eventually we’re going to have our breakthrough,” he said. “We’re exactly where I thought we’d be at this point. I am impressed with the resiliency our team has shown against some of the best teams in this league. ... Although we’re not getting victories, I feel like our program is gaining respect from the way we play, for the effort we give and the way we’re going to fight to the end. You go from a program losing and not good to respectable and competitive before you can become a winning program.”

Rhode Island might have a few more wins if it could score a few more points. The Rams are last in the Atlantic 10 with 62.2 points per game, while shooting a league-worst 40.5 percent from the field.

Xavier Munford is not the problem. The 6-foot-2 junior college transfer is second in the Atlantic 10 in scoring at 17.3 points per game.

“We have to stay connected to him and realize where he is on the floor,” Kellogg said. “He’s a guy that has a green light whenever he comes over half court. He’s really dangerous.”

Senior forward Nikola Malesevic is second on the team with 11.0 points per game and leads the team with 4.9 rebounds per game.

Rebounding, which had been a strength on previous Rhode Island teams, has been a weakness this year. URI has been outrebounded by 5.2 per game.

Kellogg thinks the Minutemen, who have been outrebounded by one board per game this season, can be better on the glass and he focused on it in practice this week.

“Rebounding is a little like defense. The guys are athletically capable. Their mindset has to be let’s go get it before we get into our transition offense. It’s by committee because we don’t have anybody on our team that you would consider a world-class rebounder. They have to go in there and do it as a group. If they do it by committee, it will ignite our transition offense a little bit more. ... Most championship teams do a good to great job on the backboards. If we want to get to that level, we have to do a better job rebounding the basketball.”

The Rams are the only A-10 team UMass will play twice this season. They play again on March 9 in Kingston, R.I.

This is the schools’ 139th meeting. UMass leads the all-time series 80-58, including 30-20 in Amherst.

The Minutemen have won four of last five, but split last year with each team winning at home.

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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