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Rhode Island looks to throw wrench in UMass’ postseason plans

AMHERST — With an 8-20 record and no chance of playing beyond Saturday, Rhode Island doesn’t seem particularly intimidating on paper.

But University of Massachusetts coach Derek Kellogg knows better. As he rode the bus to his team’s final regular season game against the Rams at 2 p.m. Saturday in Kingston, R.I., Kellogg was aware of the potential traps UMass’ longtime rival presented.

Recent history has shown that whatever records the teams arrived with, they often mean very little in this series.

A year ago, the Minutemen were in the midst of a season that would send them to the NIT semifinals, while the Rams were staggering to a 7-24 finish. But URI won the overtime game in Kingston 81-78 and nearly clipped UMass in Amherst, falling 89-83.

From 2009 to 2011, URI might have made the NCAA tournament if the inconsistent Minutemen hadn’t popped its bubble with March upsets each of those seasons.

“Every year we’ve played Rhody, it’s been really a tough game for either team regardless of where the game was played and who was supposedly the favorite,” Kellogg said.

Further reason for Kellogg’s concern is that UMass has struggled this year in short-turnaround games. The Minutemen are 1-4 with less than two full days between games, with the lone win coming over Providence on Nov. 15. Kellogg hoped that the desire to atone for Thursday’s 73-62 loss to Butler would help overcome any fatigue his team felt.

“It’ll be a test of our maturity to see if we’ve grown, to see if we come with energy and play well, to see if we put ourselves in position to win the game,” Kellogg said. “It’s not an easy turnaround. But the way we got handled last night, this will be a good test of character to see if we come out and play the way we’re supposed to. Across the board we got outplayed. I want to see these guys come back and play with some pride and toughness and play at a high level.

“Not having much time to prepare,” Kellogg continued. “We’re going to have to come in, really concentrate and play well to give ourselves a chance to win. I think it’s going to be as much mental as anything. We’re going to prepare like we’re preparing for any other game. We’re going to try to make things as normal as possible.”

UMass will be playing to improve its potential seed in next week’s Atlantic 10 tournament, while attempting to keep its hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament alive. CBS Sports and USA Today’s websites had the Minutemen among the first four teams out of the field of 68 in Friday morning’s bracket projections. UMass can finish as high as sixth in the Atlantic 10 standings or drop as low as 10th depending on this weekend’ results and tiebreakers.

Rhode Island (3-12 Atlantic 10) has already been eliminated from the conference tournament, but coach Danny Hurley hoped his team would believe it still had something to play for.

“We’ve talked a lot during the season about restoring pride in our program. It’s something that’s been an intangible sort of goal. We want to restore pride in the way our fans view us, and the way our opponents view us,” he said Monday, prior to his team’s loss to Saint Joseph’s on Wednesday. “Hopefully in order to get to this level, you have to have a desire and a passion for the game. If you can’t get excited to play against St. Joe’s and against a UMass team that handled us easily, on our senior day, you probably shouldn’t be playing.”

In the teams’ previous meeting, the Minutemen cruised to an 81-53 win at the Mullins Center behind 27 points and eight assists by Chaz Williams.

“They just didn’t have one of their better games last time. They just didn’t play really well,” Kellogg said. “They didn’t make shots which allowed us to get out in transition. I think they’re going to try to control the ball a little better.”

Freshman Jordan Hare, who missed the last meeting, has since returned for URI.

“The kid Jordan Hare playing gives them a little more of a boost defensively in the paint,” Kellogg said.

Ram seniors Alwayne Bigby, Andre Malone, Nikola Malesevic and Ryan Brooks will be honored prior to the game.

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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