Massachusetts coach Derek Kellogg watches his team plays George Washington in an NCAA college basketball game at the Smith Center in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
DAYTON, Ohio — The University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team feels confident that it has already done enough to hear its name called when the NCAA tournament field is revealed.
It’s an opinion shared by all major bracket predictors, but the Minutemen still feel like they have plenty to play for starting with Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at Dayton.
“I don’t really pay attention to all the hype,” UMass senior forward Sampson Carter. “It’s a good feeling to know we are pretty much down to be in the tournament, and we’re just playing for a high seed. It’s a comfortable feeling, but at the same time, we kind of want to do more things. For me, being my last year, I want to go out with something more special than just making the tournament. We’re trying to win the conference and win the conference tournament.”
UMass coach Derek Kellogg stressed staying in the present.
“It can be a little overwhelming at times if you pay attention to it too much. My biggest thing is, we want to try to win games right now,” he said. “I’m pretty happy that we’ve won our last three games. That’s a three-game win streak against tough teams and it kind of lets us know what we’re shooting for.”
The Minutemen (22-5, 9-4 Atlantic 10) enter the game tied for third in the conference with Virginia Commonwealth (9-4) as they try to secure one of the four byes in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament. UMass and VCU are a game behind second-place Saint Joseph’s (10-3) and a game ahead of GW and Richmond (both 8-5). On Saturday, the Spiders are at Rhode Island at 2 p.m., while the Hawks are at St. Bonaventure at 3. The Colonials host George Mason, Sunday at 2.
Duquesne (4-10) upsetting Saint Louis (12-1) Thursday left the Minutemen in the mix to win the Atlantic 10 regular season title. If UMass wins its next two games (at Dayton and at Duquesne), the Billikens drop their next two (at VCU and Dayton at home) and Saint Joseph’s loses any of its next three, the regular season finale between UMass and SLU would be for the regular season title. Kellogg wasn’t counting on it.
“That would be like hitting the lottery because a lot of things would have to happen in our favor. The only thing we can control is trying to play well and winning our games,” Kellogg said. “If there’s an opportunity the last game of the season, that would be fun. That would be a bonus because Saint Louis has dominated the conference for the year.”
The Flyers (19-9, 7-6 A-10) are an NCAA bubble team, although their case was damaged by Wednesday’s 79-53 loss to Saint Joseph’s. Beating UMass, a top 20 RPI team, would help their case.
Dayton is 6-1 against the bottom six teams in the league and 1-5 against the top teams, with the lone win coming over George Washington, which was missing three key players at the time.
Carter said the Minutemen are following the conference standings.
“As far as the conference, we’re in a good position right now, and we have a chance to do some good things,” he said. “All we have to do is win out and we should be in good shape.”
UD Arena usually has one of the conference’s, if not the nation’s toughest home-court advantages, but the Flyers are only 3-3 in Atlantic 10 games there this year. Still, the Minutemen are expecting a tough game.
“It’s going to be a great environment tomorrow,” Carter said. “It’s definitely one of those though games on the road where we’re going to have to play tough and stick together and (grind) one out. ... But it’s not going to be easy. We just need to stick together and play tough.”
Kellogg thought the game at George Washington would help have his team prepared.
“I’m hoping that it prepared us well, because it’s going to be a very similar environment against a team that’s pretty similar, a top-tier team in our conference,” Kellogg said. “It’s going to be pretty difficult, so I’m hoping that we come out and respond. Anytime you win on the road, it gives you confidence that you can do it again. On the road at Dayton is one of the tougher places in the league because they have a great fan following, and I think they play much, much better at home.”
Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert leads the Flyers with 12.2 points per game, but their strength has been their balance.
“They’ve got a lot of guys that can put the ball in the basket and carry them in different ways,” Kellogg said. “We’re going to try to have a full-fledged 5-on-5 game and cover every guy on the team like he’s a guy that can beat us.”