Is UMass Finally Ready To Bust Out?Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 14th, 2013
Trendy sleepers only stay trendy for so long. After receiving preseason love as an Atlantic 10 darkhorse before each of the last two seasons, the UMass Minutemen watched that buzz quiet a bit this time around. That’s not to say UMass was expected to struggle this season – they were picked a respectable fourth in the A-10 Preseason poll – but the familiar makeup of this group of Minutemen left many wondering how they could possibly carve out a different, happier ending from that of years past. Well, fast forward a week into the season and take a nice whiff of the optimism emanating from Western Massachusetts. Opening week victories over BC and LSU don’t make UMass anyone’s team of the week, but they do show this team’s capability (thus far, at least) to do something their predecessors could not – handle their business in the non-conference. March fates are rarely decided in the second week of November, but take notice, even if it is a year or two past schedule: That sleeper may finally be waking up in Amherst.
A couple of 9-7 records in Atlantic 10 play (UMass’ finish in both 2012 and 2013) are rarely part of the recipe for an at-large bid to the Dance, but in each of the last two seasons, the more damning portion of the Minuteman resume was not their so-so in-conference performance. Two years ago they posted just one top-130 victory before January (a home win over Davidson), while striking out on opportunities against top-50 foes Florida State and Miami (FL). Last season’s non-conference effort was marginally better, but wins over Harvard, Providence and Ohio should not be the pre-conference highlights for a team with serious NCAA Tournament aspirations – especially one from a non-BCS conference. Making matters worse, the chances were again there for Derek Kellogg’s club, but losses to NC State, Tennessee, and Miami (FL) all came by double figures. Once again, those touting the Minutemen were quickly made to look too ambitious.
Two games in, and the script has already flipped. Neither BC nor LSU are locks as Tournament teams at this point, but both are presumed to be solid squads; each has figured into the preseason bids discussion within their respective conferences. Also important is that UMass defeated the Eagles at the TD Garden, mere miles away from their Chestnut Hill campus. A year ago, UMass won its four non-conference road games by just 13 combined points (same as the final margin in the BC contest), but more embarrassing is that all of those wins came against teams that wound up finishing in the bottom half of Division I. Needless to say, the Minutemen have already improved upon their early-season road efforts of a year ago.
There’s a lot that looks different with this UMass team, but the guy at the center of it all has been there for quite some time. Chaz Williams is still the engine to the uptempo Minutemen attack, and nothing he has done thus far this season (44 points and 12 assists total vs. BC and LSU) would prevent a possible ascension to A-10 POY status. Continued brilliance from the little guy is a must for UMass to succeed, but Kellogg also hopes to have built a tougher team around his point guard. Upperclassmen big men Cady Lalanne (21.5 PPG, 9.5 RPG) and Sampson Carter (14.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG) have shined early on, lending hope for a more physical Minuteman identity than we have seen in past years. Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon should also help that cause; the 6’2” sophomore guard amazingly finished in the top-500 nationally in defensive rebounding percentage during his lone season at WKU. He is far from your prototypical shooting guard, but looks to be a good fit with this new-look UMass team, one that figures to rely far less on the three-point shot this year. The Minutemen hoisted just 24 total attempts in their opening two games, a season after averaging more than 21 attempts a contest. That being said, finding someone other than Williams capable of stretching the floor will be important for Kellogg, who has to be hoping for a return to form for Raphiael Putney, who shot just 28 percent from distance last season — a full nine percentage points below his 2012 average. But as useful as finding a few shooters would be, UMass fans have to be thrilled with the early returns from the Minutemen bigs. More than any other element to this UMass start, they offer hope that this is both a different and improved basketball team.
Here’s your second reminder that it’s still November, but with it comes a final plea to take this UMass team seriously. VCU and Saint Louis should be the class of the A-10, but La Salle, the only other team ahead of the Minutemen in the preseason poll, is already taking on water after a loss to Manhattan and a closer-than-you-would-like victory over Quinnipiac. The Explorers’ struggles have only further expanded the expanse of unclaimed territory in the A-10, and if this first week of basketball is any indication, it’s a space that Chaz Williams and the Minutemen are already zeroing in upon.