Massachusetts' Cady Lalanne, right, and Providence's LaDontae Henton, left, react after Lalanne was fouled while scoring a basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, in Amherst, Mass. UMass won in overtime 69-67. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
AMHERST — Not many people can say they predicted that the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team would be having the year that it’s having. Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli is one of the few.
“UMass is being underrated nationally,” Martelli told CBS New York on Aug. 9. “If college basketball is about the point guard position, they have one of the best in Chaz Williams. They also have a transfer in Derrick Gordon that’s capable of being a first-team all-league player. He’s that good.”
Almost five months later, Martelli looks clairvoyant as the 19th-ranked, 12-1 Minutemen get set to open Atlantic 10 play Wednesday at 7 p.m. against Martelli’s Hawks at the Mullins Center.
“They’re everything I thought they would be. They’re a national team. They should be talked about nationally and they should have been talked about nationally going into the season,” Martelli said during Monday’s A-10 coaches conference call. “This is a wonderful, wonderful team with tremendous balance. ... Their balance is extraordinary (with) the kind of production they’re getting off the bench from Maxie (Esho) and Trey Davis. It’s a story that I thought would unfold and has clearly done that.”
The Minutemen are trying to return to the level of play that earned them so much national attention. After losing to Florida State, UMass struggled to beat Providence and Miami (Ohio). UMass coach Derek Kellogg hoped the intensity of conference play would help get his team back on track.
“I think they realize the importance of playing well in conference and playing with high energy and intensity. We had a good practice on Monday. I’m hoping we continue to trend that way toward the game on Wednesday night,” he said. “This is a big time year. With all the work these guys have put in, you might as well come and perform. That’s what I’m expecting. There’s going to always be ebbs and flows. We’re not going to play great all the time but you want to at least bring intensity in as many games as you can.”
Kellogg said his team should expect things to be tougher in league play because its opponents should know what to expect.
“It’s a little tougher to do things in conference. They’ve played against us and understand what we’re trying to do. That’s why you end up in tougher games,” Kellogg said. “We may have to win some half-court games that don’t get to our pace because teams are good.”
The Hawks (9-4) arrive in Amherst on a five-game winning streak. After suffering a 98-68 pounding at the hands of then No. 14 Villanova, St. Joe’s got off the mat and beat Drexel, Loyola-Maryland, Boston University, Binghamton and Denver.
“When you play a rivalry game and get it handed to you like that, a lot of people gave them (a hard time),” Martelli said. “To the players’ credit they were told that was what was going to happen and we were going to have to stay strong and there were going to be a lot of opportunities ahead coming out of that. The players hung in.”
The Hawks were picked to win the Atlantic 10 in the 2012-13 preseason poll largely on the expectations for last year’s junior class. The team struggled, finished 18-14 and went to the NIT. Those juniors are now seniors and are the backbone of this squad that will try fulfill some of that promise.
Martelli said they need more than his seniors to contribute if the Hawks are going to be successful.
“We need to develop our depth. We haven’t had much success off the bench. Halil Kanacevic, Ronald Roberts and Langston Galloway have been seniors,” he said. “Chris Wilson has been playing well at point guard lately and DeAndre Bembry is one of the best freshmen in this league.”
Galloway is fifth in the conference at 16.9 points per game.
Kellogg thought the Hawks were a contender to win the A-10.
“They were one of the teams in the preseason that I thought could win the league,” he said. “I thought they have enough talent and enough senior leadership that if they put it all together I thought they could be one of the more dangerous teams in the conference.”
The game could feature a potentially interesting rebound battle. UMass center Cady Lalanne leads the conference in rebounding at 9.8 per game, but Roberts and Kanacevic are tied for fourth at 7.8 apiece.
Saint Joseph’s has struggled from the free-throw line making just 65.7 percent (12th in the A-10).
RIVALRY VETERANS — Former Hofstra teammates Williams and Kanacevic have played well against each other. Williams is averaging 14.7 points and 8.7 assists in three games against the Hawks, while Kanacevic had averaged 9.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists in three against the Minutemen.
“Kanacevic is kind of a do-everything guy. He doesn’t really wow you with anything,” Kellogg said. “But he can put it on the floor. He’s their leading assist guy. He’s very very effective to say the least.”