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Butler game as big as it gets for UMass men’s basketball

Butler head coach Brad Stevens watches his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond, Va., Saturday, March 2, 2013.  VCU won 84-52.  (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Butler head coach Brad Stevens watches his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond, Va., Saturday, March 2, 2013. VCU won 84-52. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) Purchase photo reprints »

AMHERST

Sam the Minuteman’s Facebook page, which is run by the marketing department at the University of Massachusetts, posted a question to fans:

“UMass vs. Butler. The Biggest Home Game Since... Marcus Camby vs. Tim Duncan 1995 or UMass Knocks off Rudy Gay and No. 7 UConn 2004?”

The mascot and the department are actually underselling it. For the Minutemen, Thursday’s game is bigger than either of those.

Both of those games were fun nights with great atmospheres and memorable results. But in reality they had no tangible affect on anything. Win or lose against Wake Forest and the 1995-96 Minutemen were still going to the NCAA tournament. Even after beating the defending champion Huskies, the 2004-05 UMass team faded and didn’t go to postseason. There was nothing on the line but pride in either of those games.

There’s plenty on the line Thursday. For starters, the Minutemen can still earn a bye in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament and even if they don’t, a win likely improves their seed in next week’s event in Brooklyn, N.Y.

But bigger than that, UMass is still in contention to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, a feat it hasn’t accomplished since 1998. The Minutemen need to finish strong, but any real examination of the bubble shows them still in the picture.

Bracket projections from CBS and USA Today already have UMass in the field. A win over Butler, which boasts wins over No. 1 Gonzaga and former No. 1 Indiana, would be a giant addition to UMass’ resume.

The fact that the game is this late in the season and is nationally televised means that there’s a good chance members of the selection committee will be tuning in.

The Minutemen could also make an impression on Anton Beard, a talented Arkansas high school junior who is visiting. The four-star guard’s skillset would make him a natural to fill the role held by Chaz Williams. A good game and a good atmosphere could help the program’s future as well as its present.

You have to go back a long way to really find a regular season game as big as this one and there might never have been one at home. Most years by this time, UMass has either been clearly in or clearly out of the NCAA picture. The Minutemen were on the bubble in each of Travis Ford’s last two seasons, but there was no game that going in had the obvious implications that this one does.

To really find a comparable game, you have to go back to 1997. UMass started that season 6-9 and had to claw its way back to bubble status.

The Minutemen were 15-10 when No. 10-ranked Maryland came to the Worcester Centrum. First-year coach Bruiser Flint and UMass upended the Terrapins, a win that either immensely helped earn or cemented that team’s at-large bid.

This game might have that kind of potential.

Of course the Minutemen have to win it and it’s no easy task against a very good Butler team. Getting an opportunity is only half the equation. For this game to be remembered like any of those mentioned above, they have to seize it.

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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UMass men’s basketball has much at stake against Butler

Thursday, March 7, 2013

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 … 0

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