UMass basketball can clinch Atlantic 10 tournament double bye by beating Saint Louis

  • The UMass men's basketball team will have Tre Mitchell and Noah Fernandes at full strength for the first time since they faced Davidson more than a month ago. The Minutemen play at Saint Louis at 6 p.m. Monday to close the regular season with a double bye in the conference tournament on the line. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Saint Louis’ Hasahn French is one of the most dangerous big men in the Atlantic 10. The senior averages 8.9 points and 7.2 rebounds, adding 20 blocks and 35 assists in 15 games this season. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 2/28/2021 5:54:37 PM

The stakes are simple.

If the UMass men’s basketball team beats Saint Louis at 6 p.m. Monday in Chaifetz Arena, it will clinch a double bye in this week’s Atlantic 10 Championship for the first time since 2008 as a top-four seed. That would mean not needing to play until Friday’s quarterfinals and only playing two games on consecutive days to reach the March 14 final.

Lose, and the Minutemen could fall to fifth, which grants them only a single bye to the second round and would necessitate winning three games in three days to advance to the championship.

UMass (7-5, 6-3 A-10) is third in the Atlantic-10 currently with a .667 winning percentage. A loss would drop the Minutemen to .600 and behind Davidson, which wrapped the regular season at .636. Richmond, which beat UMass on Tuesday, plays Saint Joseph’s (3-14, 2-9) at the same time. The Spiders have a .600 winning percentage and are currently fifth. A win, likely given Saint Joseph’s is one of the conference’s two worst teams, propels them to .636 and ahead of the Minutemen.

Should Richmond lose, the Spiders drop and UMass will be fourth.

Beating Saint Louis (12-5, 5-4 A-10) secures the third seed for UMass.

The Minutemen are more concerned about that than outside machinations.

“We’re just locked in on Monday, we’re not worried about what can happen Monday or what can happen in the future,” sophomore guard Noah Fernandes said. “We’re just trying to handle business and go from there.”

The Billikens will prove a tall task. They were ranked in the AP Top 25 for three weeks in January after a strong nonconference season. Saint Louis beat LSU and NC State and hung with Minnesota on the road. Then the team shut down because of positive COVID-19 cases Dec. 30 and didn’t return until Jan. 26 against Dayton.

“Had they not been paused for as long as they were and missed the amount of league games that they did, they’re an NCAA tournament team, no question,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. 

These are the top-two scoring teams in the conference. UMass leads with 76.8 points per game, while the Billikens score 75.9 per contest. But Saint Louis is the third-best defensive team in the Atlantic 10, allowing just 64.7 points per game. The Billikens also lead the conference in rebounding (39.4 per game) and rebounding margin, pulling down 9.5 more boards per game than their opponents.

That starts with the Billikens’ size, depth and experience. Saint Louis starts three seniors, including Javonte Perkins, a 6-6 wing that leads the team scoring at 16.9 points per game, good for ninth in the conference. He shoots 42.2 percent from 3, seventh in the A-10.

“Gotta stay glued to him, can’t give him open looks,” McCall said.

Jordan Goodwin, a 6-3 guard, averages a double-double with 14.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.

Hasahn French, a Springfield Commonweath Academy product, anchors the frontcourt with 8.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game to go along with 20 blocks.

“They’re real deep, too. Preparing for them is tough when they have a lot of guys that can score, create and rebound,” Fernandes said. “I think we match up well with them because we’ve got the same weapons.”

More importantly, those weapons are healthy. Fernandes and sophomore center Tre Mitchell won’t have any restrictions after not starting against Richmond in their return from injuries. Having the two-week break allowed both to recover. Fernandes said his wrist is “100 percent,” and Mitchell said that his shoulder still hurts “a little bit, but nowhere near it did. It’s mind over matter. I’m good to go.”

The Minutemen practiced five-on-five sets fully healthy – minus Dibaji Walker, who is out for the season after undergoing wrist surgery during the pause – last week for the first time since the beginning of the season. They focused more on their own execution and sets rather than specifically preparing for any opponent. 

“Ultimately when you get to the tournament that’s what it’s going to be about,” McCall said. “There’s not a lot of scouting that will go into it.”

To combat Saint Louis’ size, UMass plans to play bigger at times with freshman Cairo McCrory at the small forward with fellow freshmen Ronnie Degray III and Dyondre Dominguez at power forward.

“We’re going to need size and physicality. We’re going to need to do a great job rebounding, and because of our depth we have the luxury to do that,” McCall said. “The big key in this game, too, is we’ve got to get them in foul trouble.”

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