UMass basketball returns from pause with a shot at Atlantic 10 title

  • Tre Mitchell hasn't played since the Minutemen lost to Davidson on Jan. 24, but he and Noah Fernandes are expected back in the lineup Tuesday against Richmond. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/22/2021 7:43:42 PM

Factors outside the UMass men’s basketball team’s control halted its season for two weeks. With two games remaining, the Minutemen now get to decide their own fate in pursuit of an Atlantic 10 title.

The league will crown its regular season champion based on conference winning percentage. UMass is tied with St. Bonaventure and VCU atop the standings with a .750 mark. The Bonnies and Rams are each 9-3, while the Minutemen sit at 6-2. All three teams have two games remaining before the conference tournament. If they all win out, UMass will nudge ahead by percentage points (.800 vs. .786). Only teams who have played above 60 percent of the median number of conference games will be eligible. The current median is 12, and the Minutemen are above the threshold (7.2).

“The goal is to win a championship. We can control our own destiny and accomplish that,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “That’s a goal you go into every season with.”

It won’t be easy. The Minutemen (7-4, 6-2 A-10) emerged from the two-week pause over the weekend and will face Richmond at 6 p.m. Tuesday. They haven’t seen the floor since a Feb. 6 win at Rhode Island. The pause canceled four games, bringing UMass’ total lost games to 17 for the season.

“This last shut down was one of the more difficult ones to deal with in terms of the emotional victory we had, how hard we played, how unselfish we played,” McCall said. “The next day to find out we were shut down because of something completely out of our control was difficult for our guys to deal with. You didn’t see anyone sulking or complaining.”

UMass also will face Saint Louis on the road at 6 p.m. Monday. Both games are opportunities for the Minutemen to show they belong among the conference’s upper tier. All six of UMass’ A-10 victories have come against teams seeded 11th or lower (two each over La Salle, Fordham and Rhode Island). The Minutemen lost to George Mason (ninth) in double overtime and fell against Davidson (fourth) at home.

“The rest of the A-10 is questioning our credentials because of the teams we’ve beaten so far this year,” UMass senior Mark Gasperini said. “We’re excited to go out there and prove we belong atop the standings.”

That starts Tuesday against the Spiders, a team that has beaten the Minutemen six of the past seven meetings. Richmond (12-5, 5-3) has won two of its past three games, including one over Division III school St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

The Spiders are the A-10’s most efficient shooting team, converting 48.2 percent of their field goals while running the Princeton offense. Normally – like facing the triple option in football – dealing with the Princeton requires focused drilling in practice to combat its tenets and reads. UMass has only had two practices since it exited lockdown, and McCall used that time to focus on his team instead of a potential opponent. The Minutemen thought they would be playing Saint Joseph’s until the league announced Friday’s schedule changes.

“We had to come out of this thing with limited practices getting ourselves up to speed,” McCall said. “Have we spent time guarding the Princeton? Yes. Has it been our main focus coming out of this two week pause? Absolutely not. And it couldn’t be.”

Richmond is also the A-10’s second-most accurate team from the free-throw line (74.1 percent) and third deadliest from beyond the 3-point arc (35.4 percent). The Spiders boast the conference’s best assist to turnover ratio.

Blake Francis leads the team averaging 16.4 points per game, ninth in the conference, and all five Richmond starters score at least 11 per contest.

“The word for the game is urgency. The second you stand up or come out of a defensive stand, you’re getting back cut,” McCall said. “Their starting five is as good as any starting five in our conference. We’ve got to find ways to get to their bench and find ways to not allow them to come down and run their offense every single time."

The Minutemen will have reinforcements. The time off allowed injured players to recover, and everyone participated in practice Sunday except Dibaji Walker. The junior forward announced Feb. 9 he was going to have surgery on the wrist that has been bothering most of the year and will miss most of the season.

“We’re gonna miss this length, his athleticism his tenacity,” McCall said. “There’s some games he helped us win with his defense playing with one hand. He plays the game with a lot of passion and relishes being out there.”

The good news is that sophomore center Tre Mitchell and sophomore guard Noah Fernandes should return after missing the team’s previous two wins against Fordham and Rhode Island with injuries.

“As of right now everybody is doing well,” McCall said. “We’ll see how everyone responds (Monday) and hopefully have a full lineup ready to go (Tuesday).”

NO SENIOR DAY –  UMass won’t allow home events until “mid-March,” so that means the Minutemen missed an opportunity to honor their two seniors, Carl Pierre and Mark Gasperini, for their final home game.

“That’s the hard part. You’ve got two seniors, one guy who’s been here for four years and put everything he has into this program, and you have Mark Gasperini, who’s all about the right things, you can see how everyone celebrated his success,” McCall said. “We didn’t get the opportunity to celebrate those guys the right way.”

ITINERARY – UMass left for Richmond after practice Monday and will return to Amherst after the game Tuesday. The Minutemen will leave for Saint Louis on Sunday, play the Billikens on Monday then stay in St. Louis that night before heading to Richmond on Tuesday to begin the testing procedure ahead of the Atlantic 10 tournament.

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

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy