WASHINGTON, D.C. — Call it a test of character. Call it a test of wills. Call it a test against adversity.
(Photo courtesy Cade Belisle, Massachusetts Daily Collegian)
Call it whatever, but the Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s next test may just be its biggest of the season yet.
Coming off a dreadful 91-80 loss to the Atlantic 10’s last-place team George Mason – at home, no less – the Minutemen (19-5, 6-4 A-10) will have to leave the regret of that damaging defeat at the door when they take on George Washington on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m.
UMass, which has lost four of its last seven after starting the season 16-1, is just trying to put together some consistency. And a full 40-minute effort, especially on the road against an NCAA Tournament-level team, could be just what the doctor ordered, no matter if the outcome is a win or loss.
“I would just like to see us do that regardless, just to see our guys play for 40 minutes,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said after practice at the Smith Center on Friday. “The outcomes usually take care of themselves if you can do that. It doesn’t always mean you’ll win but you win a good amount of games if you can play well for 40 minutes.
“I think it’s definitely a test of character. Some adversity has hit over the last couple weeks but it’s something that was anticipated to a certain extent and now, really, I think they have the gameplans in place and it’s gonna test the character of the guys to see how well they play. I feel pretty confident in our guys that they’ll come back and respond and play well.”
The Colonials (19-5, 7-3) have been one of the league’s most surprising teams this season. Projected to finish 10th in the preseason poll, they’re a year experienced and stronger from a mediocre 13-17 campaign last season under coach Mike Lonergan.
Much of that – at least early on – has had to do with Maurice Creek. The Indiana transfer guard sat out last season but has been a reliable scorer (14.1 per game). Add in a strong frontcourt of emerging big men Kevin Larsen and Isaiah Armwood and it’s no surprise this team has been earning points in the AP Top 25.
Even without second leading scorer Kethan Savage – who has missed the last six games after fracturing the fifth metatarsal in his left foot – the Colonials haven’t exactly missed a beat, going 4-2 in that span. They’re 12-0 at home this season.
”I think that would be a big time statement (win) for us,” Kellogg said. “Obviously we know how good they’ve played here thus far this year and where they are in the national rankings and RPI. So it’s gonna be a tough game but it would be a big win for us if we could pull it off. We’re gonna have to play really, really well, make some shots and make some free throws. I think those would be some things, along with taking care of the basketball, that would go into trying to beat a team like this at home.”
What to watch for as UMass meets GW:
WILLIAMS’ HEALTH: UMass point guard Chaz Williams missed stretches of the second half Wednesday against George Mason due to what Kellogg described as lingering injuries.
Williams practiced Friday, but Kellogg remains cautious of the senior’s health and will monitor his minutes accordingly, especially with a six-day layoff coming ahead.
”I’ve been banged up since the St. Joe’s game but I still kept giving it a go in practice and stuff like that because of my competitive nature,” Williams said. “But sometimes you’re banged up and hurt and you need to take a little rest and that’s what coach is telling me.”
FINDING SHOOTING TOUCH: Sometimes the best medicine for ending struggles is to shoot the ball well from outside, especially for a team going on the road into a hostile gym.
And the Minutemen would very much like to find that shooting groove Saturday. Not only are they coming off a tough 7-of-25 performance against the Patriots, but GW employs 1-3-1 defensive zone – one Kellogg said UMass hasn’t seen much this season – but one that will provide open shots for his team.
Williams agreed that seeing some shots go down early could be a good sign for his team.
“I just feel like we’re out of sync a little bit,” he said. “Offensively, some guys are out of sync and defensively we’re not all in the right spots at the right time so I feel like tomorrow, early, we’ll come out focused mentally and everything will be pretty fine.”
LAST TIME THEY MET: Trey Davis made two big 3-pointers down the stretch as UMass rallied back from five points down with less than four minutes left to come away with a thrilling 77-72 win over the Colonials in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament last season.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Based on previous lineups, here are the projected starters for Saturday’s game:
G Chaz Williams, Sr.: 15.7 PPG, 7.4 APG, 1.4 SPG
G Derrick Gordon, So.: 8.7 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.6 SPG
F Raphiael Putney, Sr.: 10.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG
F Sampson Carter, Sr.: 10.6 PPG, 4.7 RPG
C Cady Lalanne, Jr.: 13.0 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.5 BPG
G Joe McDonald, So.: 7.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.7 APG
G Maurice Creek, Sr.: 14.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG
G Patricio Garino, So.: 11.5 PPG, 4.4 RPG
F Kevin Larsen, So.: 11.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG
F Isaiah Armwood, Sr.: 12.1 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.9 BPG
WHERE TO CATCH THE GAME: This one’s not on locally in Mass., but those in the Mid-Atlantic region are in luck, as it’ll be televised on Comcast SportsNet Mid Atlantic and SNY. As usual, you can also hear the game on the radio on 105.5 FM WEEI (Springfield), 1440 AM WVEI (Worcester) and 95.9 FM WATD (South Shore). I will also be courtside in Washington D.C. for this one, so give me a follow on Twitter @steve_hewitt for updates and commentary throughout, and look for my regular stories right here on Maroon Musket after the game.