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W2W4: Northern Illinois

This week, despite coming off a pair of victories – including an impressive win over BYU on Saturday – the Massachusetts men's basketball team fell in the AP Top 25 poll.

No. 22 UMass is a heavy favorite against Northern Illinois on Saturday. (Photo courtesy Cade Belisle, Massachusetts Daily Collegian)

The drop wasn't significant – the undefeated Minutemen (8-0) moved one spot down from No. 21 to No. 22 – and the reasoning behind it made relative sense. North Carolina and Colorado, both coming off impressive wins against then-No. 1 Michigan State and then-No. 6 Kansas, respectively, jumped over UMass.

But to an extent, the Minutemen's drop in the poll – as slight as it was – provided coach Derek Kellogg with an excuse to motivate his team if he wanted it. It was a chance to pump his players up, to tell them that, despite their early-season success, their No. 1 RPI ranking and third-ranked strength of schedule (thus far), that voters didn't think they were good enough to even keep their No. 21 ranking. Kellogg didn't take the bait, though.

“I haven't brought it up once,” Kellogg said Friday.

But that doesn't mean his team isn't aware of it.

“It's motivation,” sophomore guard Derrick Gordon said. “At the end of the day, we're still not getting the respect that we deserve, which is fine. That's good, because it's going to keep the chip on our shoulder and not let me or my teammates get (too confident) or anything like that.”

UMass can prove just how motivated it is Saturday afternoon when it hosts Northern Illinois, a team that, by and large, the Minutemen should beat.

The Huskies, who were picked to finish last in the Mid-American Conference preseason poll, provide UMass with its most likely victory on its remaining schedule at 98 percent, according to Jeff Sagarin's predictor. NIU has started the season 3-4, including a close road loss to Nebraska, which UMass squeaked by in the Charleston Classic last month.

Here are some things to watch for as the Minutemen look to improve their undefeated record to 9-0 on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Mullins Center:

Can UMass put NIU away early? Despite four of its eight wins being by double digits, the Minutemen have yet to really put away a team early and blow it out this season. Even in its 16-point win against New Mexico and 12-point win at Eastern Michigan, those games were close throughout before UMass pulled away late to make the victory margin look wider than it really was.

Still, Kellogg downplayed the notion of trying to blow out an NIU team that has tended to linger around against its opponents this season, even if it meant that doing such would afford him an opportunity to play his freshmen a little more. Three of the Huskies' four losses have been by five points or less.

“It would be nice if we're able to do that,” Kellogg said of putting NIU away early. “We've been able to methodically beat teams, we haven't really put anybody away early, so it's whatever it takes. I'd love to get some guys some minutes, but I never really bet on that or bank on it. If it happens, that's good, if not, we'll try to methodically do what we've been doing.”

Huskies difficult to prepare for: Saturday's game against NIU has provided Kellogg with a unique game-planning experience.

“It's a tough scouting matchup,” Kellogg said.

That's because the Huskies are, by its very definition, a deep team. Through seven games, 10 NIU players have averaged at least 10 minutes per game, with two more averaging at least 8 minutes per game. No one player seems to be the star, either. The team's leader in minutes per game, Darrell Bowie, has averaged just 26.6 minutes per game.

“We've done a pretty good job of going over the personnel, making sure we know everyone's tendencies and our guys have done a good job of paying attention,” Kellogg said. “Now, if it's 10 or 11 (deep), that's a tough number for a college kid to know. We also have to be on our toes matching up when they start subbing.

“Every team does different things, we just need to make sure we play UMass basketball and do what we've been doing.”

Gordon's free-throw woes: By all accounts, Derrick Gordon has adjusted to regular game action well after sitting out last season. He's scoring well (10.9 points per game), but more importantly, he's doing the little things, most notably being a defensive pest, that has helped the team get out to its hot start.

But one glaring area of improvement that he's working on is his free-throw shooting.

Gordon is shooting just 47.2 percent (17-for-36) from the stripe, which ranks last on the team among players with at least 10 free throw attempts. For a player like Gordon who makes his offensive presence known by driving to the hoop and drawing fouls, that number is particularly alarming.

On Friday, Gordon stayed after practice, isolating himself on one end of the court to get some extra shots up. His focus is not so much adjusting his mechanics as much as it is just simply feeling comfortable and relaxed at the line.

“I had a tendency to think about not missing,” Gordon said. “Coach DK said don't go in there with your mind going all over the place. Just go in there and focus. Once he told me that, I've been working on it for the last week and a half, I've noticed a lot of difference.”

Kellogg agreed.

“I think he wants to shoot a higher percentage, so I've been talking to him a little bit about it, but really, talking less and don't worry about it is the biggest thing for him,” he said. “Don't let it mentally mess with you.”

Probable starters: Based on previous lineups, here are the projected starting lineups for Saturday's game:

Northern Illinois (based on last game)

*G Aaric Armstead, Fr.: 7.0 PPG, 2.6 RPG
*G Dontel Highsmith, Fr.: 7.0 PPG, 3.3 RPG
*G Daveon Balls, So.: 6.7 PPG, 3.0 RPG
*F Darrell Bowie, So.: 10.7 PPG, 7.0 RPG
*C Jordan Threloff, Jr.: 9.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG

UMass

*G Chaz Williams, Sr.: 17.5 PPG, 7.6 APG
*G Derrick Gordon, So.: 10.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG
*F Raphiael Putney, Sr.: 12.6 PPG, 5.4 RPG
*F Sampson Carter, Sr.: 13.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG
*C Cady Lalanne, Jr.: 15.0 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 2.6 BPG

Where to catch the game: The game will be nationally televised on NBC Sports Network at 3 p.m. You can also hear it on the radio on 105.5 FM WEEI (Springfield), 1440 AM WVEI (Worcester) and 95.9 FM WATD (South Shore). I will also be at the Mullins Center for the game, so you can also follow along with me on Twitter for updates and commentary @steve_hewitt.

Have a UMass basketball question for Steve Hewitt? Send him a tweet @steve_hewitt or send him an email at shewitt@umass.edu and it could appear in an upcoming mailbag.

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