Matt Vautour: Questions remain as UMass hits home stretch



Last modified: Saturday, February 22, 2014

After 10 weeks in the one or both of the top 25s, the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team is unranked again after three losses in its last four games. With nine regular season games and the Atlantic 10 tournament still to go, the focus shifts to seeding in the conference tournament and making the NCAA’s field of 68.

With 21 games into the books, UMass (17-4) has established some things, while questions remain about others. Here’s a look at the Minutemen as they hit the home stretch of the 2013-14 season.

WHAT’S KNOWN

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UMass in good shape — If the current struggles are more of a hiccup than a collapse, the Minutemen are very much still in good shape to make the NCAA tournament.

Depending on what website is replicating the ratings percentage index, the Minutemen are either ninth (RPIForecast.com, CBS Sports) or 11th (ESPN). UMass has lived on the bubble in recent seasons, but as of now that RPI would have it firmly in if the tournament field was selected now.

UMass has 10 wins over teams in the top 100 of the RPI, including three against teams in the top 50. None of the Minutemen’s losses have come to teams outside of the top 100 and every team they have played or will play is currently in the top 200.

They have five chances to add to their top 100 win total, including three chances to add top 50 wins with games against VCU, George Washington and Saint Louis remaining. St. Joe’s (which UMass split with) and LSU (which UMass beat) are ranked No. 53 and 54, respectively. They could become top 50 wins if those teams continue to win.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has UMass 27th on his S-Curve that he uses to fill and seed his mock NCAA tournament bracket. There are at-large teams as low as 49.

It would be hard to win the Atlantic 10 regular season title — In the past 10 seasons, no A-10 team has earned the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament with four or more losses. So the Minutemen (4-3 Atlantic 10) need to win their remaining nine games to avoid their fourth loss and would need the teams above them to lose.

The Minutemen are never out of a game — The combination of their frenetic playing style and Chaz Williams has kept any team from really pulling away from UMass. In three of their four losses, the Minutemen have been a shot or a stop away from winning.

As Williams goes, so goes UMass — Given the amount of defensive attention placed on him, it’s almost unfair to expect Williams to keep putting up big numbers, but UMass can’t afford for him to have too many off nights. In 17 wins he averaged 16.8 points and shot 44 percent.

Saturday’s loss to St. Joe’s marked the first time this season that he had a good game (16 points on 4-for-8 shooting) and UMass lost. During the first three defeats, he averaged 9.7 points and shot 26 percent.

QUESTIONS

Did last week provide a blueprint on how to beat UMass? — The Minutemen’s first two losses came against a Florida State team with size that few teams can replicate and a Richmond team that plays an unusual style.

But St. Bonavanture and St. Joe’s were far more conventional and threw UMass off its game. It has appeared that the Minutemen’s struggles were more self-inflicted, but the next few games should be interesting.

How serious is Maxie Esho’s injury? — After Williams, Esho might be the most important player on the UMass roster. In addition to bringing energy and lifting teammates around him, Esho can guard perimeter and inside players and has been a valuable scorer against the zone.

“He’s not doing great,” Kellogg said on his radio show Monday night. “With all the new rules regarding concussions, I’m not sure if that allows him to play Wednesday. I’m not too optimistic for him to play Wednesday, but I think he’ll be good to go on Sunday.”

Is there a ninth man who can help? — Kellogg has been hoping that one of his freshmen would break out and earn added playing time. But nobody has shown enough to really crack the rotation.

Seth Berger could have a chance to prove himself Wednesday if Esho can’t go.

Can UMass win a big road game? — The Minutemen have played great at the Mullins Center, but have lost three straight road games. Tough trips at George Washington and Dayton could have a big impact on UMass’ seed in the A-10 tournament.

MY TOP 10 — 1. Syracuse, 2. Arizona, 3. San Diego State, 4. Wichita State, 5. Florida, 6. Villanova, 7. Michigan State, 8. Kansas, 9. Duke, 10. Cincinnati.

For the rest of my Top 25 visit the College Hoop Week Guide on GazetteNET.com’s UMass Sports Blog.

GAMES OF THE WEEK: Wichita State at Indiana State, Wednesday, 8 p.m. ESPN3 — The undefeated Shockers have more games left against teams with RPIs above 200 (four) than below 100 (two).

The Sycamores (17-5) are No. 57 in the RPI and are undefeated at home. If someone is going to prevent WSU’s perfect regular season, Indiana State looks like the best chance.

ATLANTIC 10 GAME OF THE WEEK: — Saint Louis at Saint Joseph’s, Wednesday, at 7 p.m.; VCU at Saint Joseph’s, Saturday, 8 p.m. CBS Sports Network — The Hawks (15-6) had an RPI of 55 entering the week, which puts them on the NCAA tournament bubble albeit with a lot of work to do. After beating UMass, if the Hawks could get two wins this week, their résumé would get a huge bump. Even one win enhances their position.

FINALLY ... Someone at UMass should be looking into getting Raphiael Putney in the slam dunk contest at the Final Four.

Information from personal interviews, newspaper articles and sports information releases was used in this report.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed.




 

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