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UMass men’s basketball has much at stake against Butler

Butler forward Roosevelt Jones, center, tries to break free against Virginia Commonwealth guards Briante Weber, right, and Rob Brandenberg in Richmond, Va., on Saturday. VCU won 84-52. Butler plays at the Mullins Center at 7 p.m. Thursday in the final regular-season home game for the Universtiy of Massachusetts. (AP Photo)

Butler forward Roosevelt Jones, center, tries to break free against Virginia Commonwealth guards Briante Weber, right, and Rob Brandenberg in Richmond, Va., on Saturday. VCU won 84-52. Butler plays at the Mullins Center at 7 p.m. Thursday in the final regular-season home game for the Universtiy of Massachusetts. (AP Photo) Purchase photo reprints »

AMHERST — It looks like the Atlantic 10 rivalry between the University of Massachusetts and Butler is going to be a short one.

But the one game between the two schools figures to be meaningful when they meet at 7 tonight at the Mullins Center.

Originally the Bulldogs were not scheduled to join the Atlantic 10 conference until the 2013-14 season, but when the Horizon League elected to prevent them from competing in its conference tournament this year they joined the A-10 early.

Now Butler’s inaugural trip through the conference appears to also be its farewell tour as it is expected to join the seven departing Big East Catholic schools and Xavier in a new conference for the 2013-14 season.

Wednesday’s results eliminated the Minutemen (18-9, 8-6 A-10) from contention for a bye in the first round of next week’s Atlantic 10 tournament. The top four teams get byes and the best UMass can finish is fifth.

The Minutemen are still trying to keep alive their chance for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs (22-7, 9-5) likely have their NCAA bid wrapped up, but are still chasing that first-round bye in the conference tournament.

It is also the final regular-season home game for UMass seniors Terrell Vinson and Freddie Riley, who will be honored before the contest. They were part of coach Derek Kellogg’s first recruiting class.

“They took a leap of faith,” Kellogg said. “At the end of the day, they’ve helped establish the program. Those two guys have fought through a lot of adversity when things weren’t going quite as well as they could have been. It’s paid dividends for them over the last couple seasons here.

“I’m going to be here for them for the rest of their lives when they’re done playing ball or they need help along the way,” he added. “They’re family members now.”

Riley said he cannot believe his senior night is already here.

“I’m shocked that it went by so fast. I still remember the first day I got on campus like it was yesterday,” Riley said. “It’s hard to believe my last home game is Thursday.”

Vinson said he was not focusing on either the game’s ceremonial significance or its ramifications.

“We don’t need to put any pressure on ourselves to perform,” he said. “We just need to relax and play like we’ve been playing these last few games.”

While Vinson downplayed what senior night means to him, junior guard Chaz Williams said he wants to send his teammates out on a high note.

“Every game is a meaningful game, but this last one it means a lot to us, first and foremost for our seniors,” junior guard Chaz Williams said. “These guys did a tremendous job here for four years. They’re tremendous students and great people to be around for four years. It’s a great way for people to see them go out. It’d be a great thing for the team to get this victory.”

Butler arrives in Amherst at a rare down point in a very good season, coming off two straight losses to Saint Louis and Virginia Commonwealth. Those are the Bulldogs’ only back-to-back losses of the season, which knocked them out of the top 25 after 11 straight ranked weeks.

Still, Butler, which was ranked as high as No. 9, boasts wins over current No. 1 Gonzaga and former No. 1 Indiana.

Senior guard Rotnei Clarke, a transfer from Arkansas, has provided the Bulldogs with a scoring presence. His 16.5 points per game is fourth in the Atlantic 10 and he is among the conference’s best shooters from both 3-point range (42.8 percent) and the free-throw line (88.1 percent).

UMass junior forward Sampson Carter first met Clarke nine years ago.

“I went to camp with him in eighth grade in St. Louis. He won the 3-point shooting contest,” Carter said. “He’s been making them ever since. He hasn’t seen a shot he don’t like. If we can keep him contained we should be all right.”

Butler sophomore guard Roosevelt Jones earned national attention for his buzzer beater against Gonzaga, and he’s among the conference’s most complete players averaging 10.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and a team high 3.3 assists.

Like the Minutemen earlier in the season, the Bulldogs struggled against VCU’s pressure defense in Saturday’s 84-52 loss. While the pressure applied by UMass is not as relentless as that of the Rams, Kellogg said he hopes it will shake up Butler.

“You have to get them a little out of their comfort zone. When they’re comfortable and they do what they do, they do it very, very well,” Kellogg said. “If we can get them out of their comfort level and use our athleticism to get some pressure and do some different things, that would benefit us some.”

Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens expects to have his hands full.

“It’s very different (than VCU’s pressure), but at the same time it’s very effective,” he said about the Minutemen’s defense. “UMass has done a great job throughout the course of the whole season and certainly this latter part of the season at both ends of the floor.

“They create great tempo opportunities with their defense and they really look to push the ball on the offensive side of the floor,” Stevens added. “It’s another great challenge. It’s another potential at-large team on the road on their senior night.”

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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