AMHERST — Derek Kellogg is trying not to think about anything beyond Wednesday night’s 7 p.m. game against George Mason at the Mullins Center.
Every year after the Super Bowl, college basketball starts getting much more national attention. With a 19-4 record (6-3 Atlantic 10) and a strong overall résumé for an NCAA tournament bid, the University of Massachusetts is getting a bigger-than-usual slice of that attention.
But Kellogg is avoiding talk of Bracketology, bubbles and bids, thinking that the best way to botch earning an NCAA tournament bid is to assume you’ve already got one. He’s not even ready to look at Saturday’s game at George Washington. One George at a time.
“I’m avoiding thinking about anything other than George Mason right now,” Kellogg said Tuesday. “At times during the season you start thinking about the Barclays Center (home of the Atlantic 10 tournament) or what’s after that. That’s when you don’t stay focused. We wanted to refocus and make sure we were concentrating on what’s important — today’s practice, tomorrow’s shootaround, the game — and try to minimize all the distractions.”
Even when he’s watching game tapes of opponents, he’ll avoid listening if the announcers discuss the Minutemen during conversations about the Atlantic 10.
“I try to fast forward as fast as possible,” he said. “I love hearing the good stuff about everybody else, but I try to minimize what I hear about us.”
Kellogg said he thought his team had gotten better at managing the distraction.
“I think we’ve matured. We had a run there where there was a lot of attention, media attention every day and sometimes that gets you off kilter a little bit,” Kellogg said. “I think our guys’ attention is in the right place right now.”
Despite George Mason’s 8-15 record (1-8 Atlantic 10), Kellogg doesn’t need to convince his team that the Patriots are a formidable foe. On Jan. 15 in Fairfax, Va., GMU had UMass on the ropes, before the Minutemen wriggled free for an 88-87 win.
“Playing them already, and they played us real well, has all of our attention. I thought from the get-go that they had really good personnel,” Kellogg said. “It’s a game we’re going to have to come and really play well to win.”
Mason got its first win as an A-10 program Saturday, edging Duquesne 74-68 in Pittsburgh. It ended a nine-game losing streak, but six of those losses were by six points or less, including two in overtime.
UMass is 9-0 at the Mullins Center this season with four more games in the building. Keeping that record unblemished is a goal for Chaz Williams.
“It means a lot to me personally,” Williams said. “I’m a senior. This is my last year. I’m just trying to go out and being remembered for something good. Protecting our house is one of the main things.”
Mason has struggled on the road this season, going 2-7.
WILLIAMS ON MARCUS SMART — Williams is often a target for hecklers when the Minutemen are on the road and he has heard some nasty things. He could relate to the situation at Oklahoma State, where star guard Marcus Smart lost his temper and shoved a heckler.
“Some of the things that do get said, aren’t easy to deal with. At the same time, you have to remember that to some people you’re a role model. You have to uphold your image,” Williams said. “Unfortunately he didn’t. That has to be a tough situation for him. My mom always taught me if someone is talking to you trying to get you off your game, you must be doing something good. Don’t let it affect your play. I always smile, give them a wink or something. Never really exchange words.”
NOTES — If UMass wins it would be the program’s 200th victory at the Mullins Center and its third straight 20-win season. ... Former UMass and Amherst Regional football standout James Ihedigbo, who has played the last two seasons for the Baltimore Ravens, tweeted that he’s planning to attend the game.