The Massachusetts men's basketball team isn't flying under the radar anymore in the Atlantic 10.
Chaz Williams and No. 19 UMass open up Atlantic 10 play Wednesday against Saint Joseph's. (Photo courtesy Maria Uminski, Massachusetts Daily Collegian)
Perhaps it never was, but one thing is certainly clear: Everyone, from media members to players, fans and especially coaches, are taking a lot these days about the Minutemen, who are ranked No. 19 in the nation with a 12-1 record as they begin league play Wednesday night at home against Saint Joseph's.
“UMass has been phenomenal, but I'm not really surprised,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said in this week's Atlantic 10 coaches conference call. “They were really, really good last year … and they had quite a few major pieces back, including the best player in the conference, so not surprising.”
Count St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli among those, too, who aren't surprised by UMass' quick start.
“They're everything I thought they were,” he said on the conference call. “They're a national team. They should be talked about nationally. They should have been talked about nationally going into the season. This is a wonderful, wonderful team with tremendous balance and every coach on here is going to tell you that college basketball goes through the point guard, and tell me one that's better than Chaz (Williams).”
The next step for these Minutemen is to prove they can stand up to a conference in which they will have a target planted squarely on their backs. And in a league that has proven to be unforgiving in the past, where teams can't afford to take nights off and expect victory, the challenge will be difficult.
The first test for UMass comes Wednesday night, as the Hawks come to the Mullins Center for a 7 p.m. tipoff in both teams' league opener hungry not only to take down a nationally-ranked squad, but to avenge their loss from last season on the Minutemen's home floor.
UMass easily took care of business in that one, 80-62, but St. Joe's returns most of its core from that team, including senior guard Langston Galloway. The Hawks struggled out of the gates this season, their 4-4 start capped with a 30-point loss to Villanova on Dec. 7, but since then have won five straight heading into Wednesday's matchup with UMass.
Some things to watch for as both teams open league play Wednesday night:
CRASHING THE BOARDS: Despite beating Miami (Ohio) on Saturday in their final tuneup before league play, the Minutemen were outrebounded 34-27 by the RedHawks, something UMass coach Derek Kellogg was not too pleased with.
“To get outrebounded by anybody is really not acceptable at this point,” Kellogg said after the game.
“We should be a better rebounding team with all of our supposed size and length and athleticism.”
St. Joe's figures to give UMass problems on the glass as well. Despite losing, the Hawks outrebounded the Minutemen in last year's matchup 35-28, and they enter Wednesday third in the league with 37.9 rebounds per game. However, UMass leads the conference with 40.5 rebounds per game so far this season. Getting back to controlling glass will be important not only to help them win Wednesday, but moving forward in the A-10.
TRACKING GALLOWAY: Galloway leads St. Joe's in scoring with 16.9 points per game, and he does his damage several different ways, both inside and out. The senior guard is shooting 44.3 percent from downtown – he makes 3.0 3-pointers per game – and he can also draw contact effectively and get to the free-throw line, where he shoots 83.7 percent from the line.
Galloway scored 14 points in last year's matchup, but got there on 4-for-11 shooting, including 2-for-9 from behind the arc. Continuing to bottle him down and not allow him clean looks will be high on the Minutemen's priority list Wednesday.
“Since he’s been here, which feels like 50 years, he’s always been a guy that can put up big numbers,” Kellogg said. “He’s a good heady ballplayer that can score the basketball, and if it’s open, it’s in. He’s a guy that, whether you’re in the half-court or the press or in zone, you have to make sure you know where he is at all times.”
MILES OUT: St. Joe's announced Tuesday that sophomore forward Isaiah Miles will miss Wednesday's game due to a concussion he suffered in the Hawks' 53-52 over Denver on Saturday.
Miles is not a starter, but has been a valuable contributor off the bench. He scored 17 points in just 12 minutes in a win over Loyola on Dec. 21, and holds season averages of 4.0 points and 2.0 rebounds per game.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Based on previous lineups, here are the projected starting lineups for Saturday's game:
*G Chris Wilson, Jr.: 9.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG
*G Langston Galloway, Sr.: 16.9 PPG, 43.4 3-pt%, 4.8 RPG
*F Halil Kanacevic, Sr.: 9.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 4.2 APG
*F Ronald Roberts, Jr., Sr.: 15.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG
*F DeAndre Bembry, Fr.: 10.5 PPG, 4.2 RPG
*G Chaz Williams, Sr.: 15.5 PPG, 7.7 APG
*G Derrick Gordon, So.: 9.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.7 SPG
*F Raphiael Putney, Sr.: 10.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG
*F Sampson Carter, Sr.: 12.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG
*C Cady Lalanne, Jr.: 13.8 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 2.8 BPG
WHERE TO CATCH THE GAME: Wednesday's game will be televised on CSNNE, CSN Philly 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 be at the game as well, so you can follow me on Twitter @steve_hewitt for live updates and commentary from the Mullins Center.
Have a UMass basketball question for Steve Hewitt? Send him a tweet @steve_hewitt or send him an email at email@example.com and it could appear in an upcoming mailbag.