UMass’ Stumble at Richmond Exhibits Reliance on Chaz WilliamsPosted by Lathan Wells on January 23rd, 2014
When a team has four players averaging double-figures on the season, it’s easy to assume that an opponent can take any one player away without assurance of success. Massachusetts, one of the media darlings of the first half of the college basketball season, boasts a roster with several multifaceted scoring options. But if anything can be taken away from the Minutemen’s tough 58-55 loss to Richmond on Wednesday night, it’s that they have one indispensable player on the offensive end: Chaz Williams.
Fresh off of a selection to the 25-player midseason Wooden Award watch list, Williams struggled mightily against the Spiders’ defense on this night. While UMass has shown that it can play well at different tempos, the frenetic style of this game exhibited why their point guard is of the utmost importance. The size of Richmond’s Cedrick Lindsay and the other taller perimeter defenders bothered the diminutive Williams — there were no forays into the paint or open shots for the A-10 Player of the Year favorite, and the Minutemen suffered as a result. He seemed to be trying to do too much as Richmond’s defense smothered UMass’ every pass, and he was frequently out of control in trying to make up for an early deficit. Williams finished the night contributing only eight points on 2-of-11 shooting, along with four turnovers.
The overlooked fact when a team has so many scoring options is that there is often a master facilitator at the point who makes it happen. The way the Spiders forced Williams to make quick decisions out of his comfort zone created a possible blueprint for both Atlantic-10 and postseason opponents on how to diffuse the Massachusetts machine. When Williams isn’t handling the ball for the bulk of the shot clock, UMass finds itself with overeager players on the wing who try to make things happen. Against a stalwart defensive unit, that leads to too many turnovers and broken possessions. The interior Minutemen require guard penetration to gain an advantage in the post, and when they’re unable to dominate the boards (a +5 edge over a decidedly smaller Spiders team on the glass), they can look quite ordinary.
Extrapolating from Williams’ tough outing in Richmond last night, it’s also fair to question whether UMass has been living a charmed life of late. Derek Kellogg’s team has recently overcome late deficits to both Saint Bonaventure and George Mason, rebounding from significant second-half deficits to win in close fashion. Teams that can consistently win tight games usually have some staying power, but that statement comes with a notable caveat: Teams that play a lot of close games aren’t putting teams away, either. The Minutemen routinely go eight players deep, which means Williams sees heavy minutes in nearly every contest. If the Minutemen are unable to count on him winning the battle in the backcourt, the team as a whole finds itself in trouble. UMass was clearly the more athletic and talented team on the court in Richmond, but it also faced a veteran team that shoots well from the line and has a calm, veteran backcourt to close out tight games late. This narrative will inevitably arise again for UMass in a conference currently boasting nine teams in the RPI top 100, most of which boast good to excellent talent at the guard positions.
Is Chaz Williams a nice story with limited legs that will cause the Minutemen to soon fall back to Earth? Not necessarily. The team played its third straight road game Wednesday night, and comeback efforts tend to become exhausting over time. On top of that, UMass lost to a team that has a penchant for defeating ranked teams over the years, especially at home. Certainly Williams had an off night, but this team has the talent to challenge just about anyone as the season progresses. Nonetheless, the loss to the Spiders served as a good lesson to the Minutemen: It’s been a nice run so far, but adversity will inevitably present itself. In an Atlantic-10 that is stacked from top to bottom, UMass will face plenty of worthy competition unimpressed by a national ranking in front of its name. The team’s success will ultimately depend on how well their point guard dictates the flow of each game, and how well he helps the Minutemen close them out.