UMass basketball: Minutemen look to get to 20 wins in regular season finale against Fordham

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-05-2024 5:11 PM

AMHERST — Only three scholarship players were set to return from last season’s UMass men’s basketball team. Just as fans did following each disappointing loss throughout the 2022-23 campaign, players filed for the exits following one final stinker in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.

Frank Martin didn’t flinch.

The second-year Minutemen head coach did things his way, bringing in a massive freshmen class of eight while only dipping into the transfer portal to bolster his frontcourt with Josh Cohen and Daniel Hankins-Sanford.

It’s not typical for coaches in this era to recruit a heavy load of first-year players. The recent recipe for success has seemed to be building a team through experience and age. The older, the better.

Yet Martin plays four of his eight freshmen for more than 10 minutes per contest, and two sophomores at least 18 minutes a night.

And now, after a 15-16 year and losing the bulk of the roster to the transfer portal, UMass is one victory away from its first 20-win season in a decade – since the 2013-14 season.

Following two massive Atlantic 10 road wins over George Washington and Davidson, the Minutemen return home for their 30th and final regular season game against Fordham on Wednesday night. Last Saturday’s win over the Wildcats stood as UMass’ 10th conference win of the year, a mark the program hasn’t hit in nine years, and 19th overall.

“I’ll tell ya… 19 wins, 10 league wins, I ain't worried about nonsense right now,” Martin said after the win over Davidson.

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A win over the Rams on Wednesday wouldn’t just give UMass 20 on the year, it also boosts its chance at a better seed in the next week’s conference tournament in Brooklyn. Right now, the Minutemen are fifth in the conference. Richmond, Loyola Chicago and Dayton have each locked up a double-bye, but VCU, St. Bonaventure and UMass are each still fighting for the fourth and final one.

In order for the Minutemen (10-7 in the A-10) to get it, they need to, first and foremost, beat Fordham, and then they’d need some help. VCU would have to lose its remaining two games (home to Duquesne, at Dayton) and the Bonnies would have to lose one of their last two (at George Washington, home to Saint Louis). The likely scenario, according to data and analytics, is for UMass to end up sixth. That means VCU (11-5, A-10) wins one, and St. Bonaventure (9-7) wins both.

Back before any games were played this year, the Minutemen were picked to finish 14th out of 15. They don’t care what seed they are when they head to Brooklyn. UMass has made it crystal clear (just look at its 64-60 loss to Dayton, buzzer-beating loss to Loyola-Chicago, 10-point road win at Richmond and blowout home win over VCU) that no matter the team it’s matched up against, it’s going to be tough for anybody to beat them.

Regardless, Martin’s focus – as is his team’s – is fully on what they can control. And that’s beating Fordham.

The Rams won 25 games a season ago, and took a big step back as they sit at 12-17 (6-10 A-10) heading into Wednesday. However, as Martin has said all year long, no conference game is easy.

Fordham has just two players averaging double digits in scoring, as guards Kyle Rose and Japhet Medor each hover around 11 points per game. Eleven players average at least nine minutes a game for head coach Keith Urgo. He has no problem digging into his bench, and that’s exactly why seven different players have been the leading scorer for the Rams this season – compared to UMass’ four.

A bout where the Minutemen are double-digit home favorites is a must-win, and it becomes particularly important considering this is the time of year where teams are supposed to be peaking for the postseason. It feels like one of those games where the four veterans (Matt Cross, Josh Cohen, Rahsool Diggins and Keon Thompson) need to will their team to win by any means possible.

If UMass does pick up the victory, it will be its third consecutive (would be the first time in conference play this season), and fourth in its last five games. The Minutemen could carry over some serious energy into Brooklyn.

Tip-off for Wednesday’s game with Fordham at the Mullins Center is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., and the game is available for streaming on ESPN-plus and on TV via NESN-plus.