Massachusetts' Maxie Esho waits for an inbound pass during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Fordham, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, in Amherst, Mass. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
AMHERST — University of Massachusetts junior forward Maxie Esho returned to practice Friday, but hasn’t been cleared to play Sunday at Rhode Island.
If Esho, who suffered a head injury last Saturday at Saint Joseph’s and missed Wednesday’s game against La Salle, has no concussion symptoms between Friday and Saturday, he’ll practice again on Saturday. If he remains asymptomatic, he could potentially play Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Ryan Center.
“He seems to be OK. We’re going to see how he responds. They’re very cautious and careful with this,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “He still looks like he got hit by Mike Tyson.”
The Minutemen (18-4, 5-3 Atlantic 10) could use as many contributors as possible at Rhode Island (11-12, 2-6). The Rams are 8-3 at home, including 2-1 against Atlantic 10 teams.
Their only setbacks in the Ryan Center are to Conference USA favorite Southern Miss and one-point losses to Providence and No. 13 Saint Louis.
URI enters Sunday’s game off of back-to-back losses. The Rams fell at Fordham on Saturday and at Virginia Commonwealth on Thursday.
“We’re looking at every game as being important and they’re a team that’s played some of the better teams in our league to a stalemate,” Kellogg said. “They’re a team, to this point, that has been very good at home. When they play well they’re as good as any team in our conference.”
UMass has lost its last three road games, a streak Kellogg is eager to end.
“We just need to practice really well and play the way we can play which is really defending and rebounding the ball,” Kellogg said. “We haven’t done that at a high, high level on the road. We’re going to try to rectify the situation.”
UMass junior big man Cady Lalanne said the Minutemen have had tough practices attempting to replicate the intensity they showed in Wednesday’s win over La Salle.
“The way you practice is the way you play,” Lalanne said. “We were really going at it. Guys were hitting each other hard. It felt like we were playing football. The gym is going to be sold out and hostile. You have to bring your ‘A’ game.”
Despite having the league’s No. 5 scorer in senior guard Xavier Munford (16.5 points per game), offense has been tough to come by for URI, which averages 67.3 points per game, worst in the Atlantic 10. The Rams struggle from the field (43.2 percent, 10th in A-10), from the free-throw line (65.8 percent, 11th) and from 3-point range (30.7, 13th). Their 322 turnovers are tied for the most in the A-10.
If the Rams aren’t effective rebounding and defending, they struggle.
Still, Rhody has shown signs of promise. Other than Munford, they’re relying heavily on a lot of new players who’ve played well together at times. Freshman E.C. Matthews, who played AAU for UMass assistant coach Marlon Williamson, is a legitimate candidate for A-10 Rookie of the Year. The 6-foot-5 guard averages 11.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. Fellow rookie Hassan Martin, a 6-foot-7 forward, averages 5.2 points and 4.7 rebounds, but has come on lately.
Rutgers transfer Gilvydas Biruta (11.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg), a 6-foot-8 junior big man from Lithuania, has given URI a significant presence inside.
“Their young kids are really good,” Kellogg said. “E.C. Matthews and Martin are very, very good and they brought in a couple of transfers and a junior college kid. For them it’s worked pretty good.”
SCOREBOARD WATCHING — The top four teams earn a bye to the Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals. UMass entered this weekend in a three-way tie for fourth place with Saint Joseph’s and Richmond, one game behind George Washington (6-2).
The Hawks are at Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday at 8 p.m., while the Spiders, who lost leading scorer Cedrick Lindsay for the season with an injury earlier this week, are idle. The Colonials host Fordham on Saturday at 4 p.m.