A Massachusetts player runs past mid court during practice at the NCAA college basketball tournament in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, March 20, 2014. Massachusetts plays Tennessee in a second-round game on Friday. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
RALEIGH, N.C. — From the moment Tennessee held on to beat Iowa in the NCAA tournament play-in game, Cady Lalanne’s importance for the University of Massachusetts’ grew significantly.
Lalanne was a huge part of UMass’ early season success. He was among the nation’s leaders in offensive rebounding, had double-doubles in the Minutemen’s first 12 games and more than held his own against some elite caliber big men.
Lalanne, who has had just three double-doubles since New Year’s Day and is averaging just 5.6 points per game since the start of March, is trying to recapture his early season form.
“I’ve just been watching film and going back to what was working against the bigger guys like that and what I was doing on offense,” Lalanne said. “So just looking back on that and seeing what I can do to adjust to bigger guys.”
The No. 6-seeded Minutemen (24-8) will play No. 11 Tennessee (22-12), Friday at 2:45 p.m. at PNC Arena. The winner will play Sunday against either No. 3 Duke and No. 14 Mercer, which play at 12:15 p.m. on Friday.
The Volunteers have more size inside than anyone UMass played in conference play. Junior Jarnell Stokes (6-foot-9, 260 pounds) had 24 points and 12 rebounds in Tennessee’s 83-69 win over the Minuteman last season in the Puerto Rico Tipoff. Stokes is averaging 10.4 rebounds and 14.8 points per game.
Senior Jeronne Maymon (6-8, 260) is averaging 10.0 points and 8.2 rebounds.
UMass coach Derek Kellogg acknowledged Lalanne’s play would be critical.
“Just to play physical and tough and try to match the size and kind of width of Maymon and Stokes would be huge for us, because those guys have really dominated the glass,” Kellogg said. “As much as his production on the scoring front, if he could do a good job of neutralizing them on the glass, that would be great for us and hopefully get us some transition baskets or on the offensive end, some easy putbacks. If he can play with high energy and high intensity and be tough out there, that will give us a chance on the boards.
“He’s committed to doing it. Now would be a great time,” Kellogg continued. “It’s one and done. Now would be a great time for him to play his best basketball of the season again. ... I still think he’s capable of having a huge tournament here.”
Tennessee has won six of its last seven with the lone loss coming against No. 1 ranked Florida. The Volunteers trailed for most of Wednesday’s game against Iowa before clawing back late to force overtime. They outscored the Hawkeyes 14-1 in overtime to pull away, 78-65.
Williams said the Minutemen looked at the tape of last year’s game, but they’ve kept its relevance in perspective.
“I feel like they did a great job against us and against me personally, the point guard,” he said. “I’m just trying to find ways to creep into their defense and get Cady the ball in easy positions and Derrick Gordon and my other teammates.
“We’re a different team from last year, a totally different team. So what Tennessee saw last year is not the same UMass they’ll see tomorrow afternoon,” Williams continued. “So it’s not necessarily a rematch, but it would be good to beat them guys after they defeated us last year in the consolation game.”
Kellogg was taking a similar approach.
“We’re a totally different team and they’re quite a bit different, especially with Maymon back and how they’ve played in the last, I guess, three weeks of the season,” Kellogg said.
Tennessee arrived in Raleigh from Dayton, Ohio, and didn’t check into its hotel until 3 a.m. Thursday morning. Despite the fatigue potential, coach Cuonzo Martin was glad to have a game under his team’s belt.
“I thought it was great for our guys to play a game like that, a physical game. I think it helps to get a game under your belt because I thought we got out the gates, we had nerves. I wouldn’t say nervous, but we played tight out the gates against Iowa,” Martin said. “Once we started to settle down in the first half and second half, we played well and did a tremendous job in defending those guys, a team that scores 82 points a game, to hold them to 65 in an overtime game.”
Martin thought Iowa, which likes to push the pace, was good preparation for UMass.
“I think both teams are very similar. They both have length. They have size. They get out and press a little bit, do different things defensively,” Martin said. “ Obviously got to watch a lot of film and Chaz Williams, a very quick guy, fast with the ball, but he’s also tough as nails. He makes plays.
“He’s good off the bounce. He makes big shots, does a tremendous job in probing a defense and continues to make plays. You think he has the ball, you think you have him stopped, he continues to find the guys. They play well.”
MISCELLANEOUS — UMass alumnus Julius Erving was at the Minuteman’s pep rally Thursday evening. Two other schools in the regional have former UMass employees working as sports information directors. Tennessee SID Jason Yellin held the same position in Amherst, while Memphis SID Lamar Chance was an assistant in that department for UMass in the 1990s.