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UMass looks to get back on track at George Washington

Massachusetts' Chaz Williams gestures toward fans during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Fordham, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, in Amherst, Mass. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Massachusetts' Chaz Williams gestures toward fans during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Fordham, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, in Amherst, Mass. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

By MATT VAUTOUR @GazetteUMass
Friday, February 14, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, February 15, 2014)

The Minutemen (19-5, 6-3 Atlantic 10) will face George Washington, Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Smith Center. The Colonials are 12-0 at home this season.

“I think that would be a big-time statement for us. Obviously we know how good they’ve played here thus far this year and where they are in the national rankings and RPI and things of that nature. So it’s going to be a tough game but it would be a big win for us if we could pull it off,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “We’re going have to play really, really well, make some shots and make some free throws. I think those would be some things, along with taking care of the basketball, that would go into trying to beat a team like this at home.”

Kellogg wasn’t panicking after Wednesday’s loss to last place George Mason. He wanted his team to get back to what made it successful early in the year.

“I would just like to see our guys play for 40 minutes. The outcomes usually take care of themselves if you can do that. It doesn’t always mean you’ll win, but you win a good amount of games if you can play well for 40 minutes,” Kellogg said. “I think it’s definitely a test of character. Some adversity has hit over the last couple weeks but it’s something that was anticipated to a certain extent and now, really, I think they have the game plans in place and it’s going to test the character of the guys to see how well they play. I feel pretty confident in our guys that they’ll come back and respond and play well.”

UMass lost to GW at home last year, but won the rematch at the Atlantic 10 tournament.

Senior point guard Chaz Williams, who played fewer minutes than normal in Wednesday’s loss because of what Kellogg called nagging injuries, was back at practice Friday. Kellogg hoped to get a strong effort out of Williams on Saturday and then give him some rest with no midweek game next week.

“He’s still banged up. His ribs and his back or whatever it is, it’s kind of a combination of both. He’s just got to play through it,” Kellogg said. “The one good thing is that if he can get through tomorrow we’ve got at least five or six days before our next game. We haven’t had that break in the middle of the conference and that has been good for us in the last couple years so I think that’ll be a good break for us.”

Williams said it’s hard to pull back.

“I’ve been banged up since the St. Joe’s game but I still kept giving it a go in practice and stuff like that because of my competitive nature,” he said. “But sometimes you’re banged up and hurt and you need to take a little rest and that’s what coach is telling me.”

Williams hoped Saturday would be a bounce-back game for him physically and the team as a whole.

“Definitely, any game after a loss is huge for our team and program. We’re just trying to bounce back and find all our wrongs we did in our last game and try to correct them for tomorrow,” Williams said. “I just feel like we’re out of sync a little bit. Offensively, some guys are out of sync and defensively we’re not all in the right spots at the right time so I feel like tomorrow, early, we’ll come out focused mentally and everything will be pretty fine.”

GW (19-5 overall) is a game ahead of UMass at 7-3 in the Atlantic 10. The Colonials were picked 10th in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, but have played themselves to the edge of being ranked, making coach Mike Lonergan not only a favorite for Atlantic 10 coach of the year, but a realistic candidate for national honors.

Indiana transfer Maurice Creek has been a big part of the turnaround. The 6-foot-5 senior guard, who took advantage of the NCAA’s fifth-year transfer rule to be eligible immediately, leads GW with 14.1 points per game.

Isaiah Armwood, a high school teammate of former Minuteman Terrell Vinson, is among the league’s top big men averaging 12.1 points and 8.4 assists.

The emergence of Kethan Savage was a big part of the team’s early season success. The sophomore might have had a chance at the Chris Daniels Award, which is given to the A-10’s most improved player, if he hadn’t injured his foot. He was averaging 13.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.0 steals per game.

But he’s missed the last six games and isn’t expected to play Saturday. Still, GW is 4-2 without him.

The Colonials are coming off a 92-75 loss at Virginia Commonwealth on Wednesday.

NAISMITH FINALIST — Williams was named one of 30 finalists for the Naismith Award, a national player of the year award given by the Atlanta Tipoff Club. Williams was previously named to the watch lists for the John Wooden Award and the Oscar Robertson Award, which are also given to national players of the year.

Williams has a chance to become UMass’ highest scoring player. Chaz Williams is 10th on the Minutemen’s career scoring list with 1,513 points. He’s 21 points behind No. 9 Harper Williams (1,534), who is not related.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com.

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