Saint Louis bringing a different kind of offensive juggernaut to face UMass basketball

  • Defensive effort and execution will be an emphasis for Rich Kelly and the UMass men’s basketball team Thursday when Saint Louis, the top-scoring team in the Atlantic 10, visits the Mullins Center at 7 p.m. Thursday. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Defensive effort and execution will be an emphasis for Rich Kelly and the UMass men’s basketball team Thursday when Saint Louis, the top-scoring team in the Atlantic 10, visits the Mullins Center at 7 p.m. Thursday. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Noah Fernandes and the UMass men’s basketball team will host Saint Louis at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/19/2022 6:44:41 PM
Modified: 1/19/2022 6:43:36 PM

The pleas for greater defensive effort and attention aren’t falling on inattentive ears.

While the UMass men’s basketball team has given up at least 77 points in each game of its four-game losing streak, the Minutemen understand why they’re giving up the looks and makes they are.

“We’re really trying to put ourselves in situations (at practice) that our opponents are going to put us in,” UMass guard Noah Fernandes said. “The better we’re prepared for them, the better it’ll be in the game.”

UMass’ defensive struggles has been a focus for longer than its current slide. The Minutemen got by early in the season with an elite offense and are now reckoning with their deficiencies on the other side of the floor. While the messages have been similar, UMass isn’t brushing off what they’ve heard before.

“The more you hear about that stuff, the more you want to not wash it away, but get it so it’s not talked about anymore,” Fernandes said. “As players, we definitely try to focus on defense a lot. We just haven’t really put two halves together on the defensive end. We’re really emphasizing that for this next game and the rest of the season.”

The next game is the perfect place to start.

Saint Louis will bring the Atlantic 10’s most dangerous offense to the Mullins Center at 7 p.m. Thursday to face the Minutemen, who have the conference’s worst defense. The Billikens average 78.4 points per game, which ranks 41st nationally.

They shoot 45.9 percent from the field – 37.4 percent from 3 – and 77 percent from the free throw line. Not world-beating numbers, but Saint Louis gives itself extra opportunities to score by controlling the boards.

The Billikens (11-5, 2-1) lead the A-10 in offensive rebounding at 13.1 per contest and total rebounding (39.5 boards per game). That gives them the league’s top rebounding margin (7.1). UMass is 11th out of 14 teams, losing the rebounding battle by 2.3 per game. Francis Okoro ranks fourth in the A-10 at 7.6 rebounds per game, and five Saint Louis players grab at least four boards per game.

“We don’t want to be chasing. We want to sit down and guard and really be physical,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “Again, I’m going to pinpoint our effort in this game.”

The Billikens also make it easier on themselves by living at the free throw line. They’ve shot 356 free throws this season, tops in the A-10 and one of the nation’s top-30 marks. Saint Louis’ 274 are also tops in the conference and is 11th in the country.

“It’s such an important stat in the game,” McCall said. “A lot of times you look at the rebound margin and the free throw margin and who’s won both of those categories. And a lot of times when you win both those categories, you win the game. Big challenge, no question.”

Point guard Yuri Collins helps the Billikens’ efficiency by creating easy, open looks for his teammates. He is second in the country at 7.8 assists per game, far and away the A-10 leader. He also scores a little over 10 points per game and shoots 40 percent from 3.

“He really creates everything for that team and keeps them going, makes them as good as they are,” Fernandes said. “He’s definitely the head of their snake. If I can slow him down, I’m sure it would definitely help the outcome of the game.”

Gibson Jimerson leads Saint Louis averaging 16.4 points per game, one of three Billikens in double figures along with Collins and Marten Linssen (10.1). Three other Saint Louis players average at least eight points per game.

UMass (7-9, 0-4) will try to contain that group with statistically the worst defense in the league. The Minutemen give up 78.3 points per game and allow their opponents to make 48.7 percent of their shots. They’ve lost their past four games and sit at the bottom of the conference standings after an 0-4 start, their worst in the league since going 0-6 to begin the 2018-19 campaign.

“Our basketball playing careers are not that long, and our careers at UMass are even shorter. Let's do everything we can to make sure that we're making the most out of each and every day, that we're playing the game unselfishly and playing it with great effort, we're enjoying the opportunity that we have to be at UMass and the opportunities to go out there and compete,” McCall said. “I think that our guys have had great attitudes.”

Thursday’s game is the first in a home-and-home series against the Billikens. The Minutemen will travel to Saint Louis for a 1:30 p.m. tip off Sunday. That streamlines McCall’s preparation for the “next” opponent because it’s the same as the previous one.

“I can just focus on where did we have success? And where did we struggle? And just take that on the road with us to Saint Louis, which is one of the best environments in the Atlantic 10,” he said. “Everything’s focused on (Thursday) night and then you make those adjustments going into Sunday.”

RESCHEDULED – UMass’ Feb. 2 contest at Fordham was rescheduled to Feb. 28. It will cram three games into the final week of the Minutemen’s regular season. They host Fordham two days after that rescheduled road game then close with a March 5 trip to George Mason.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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