GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Raphiael Putney and the University of Massachusetts will open the Atlantic 10 tournament against Rhode Island, Thursday at 9 p.m. at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — After dodging a bullet in Kingston, R.I., and another in Amherst, the sixth-seeded University of Massachusetts will try to sidestep a third in Brooklyn when they face No. 11 Rhode Island in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.
Despite its record, URI (14-17, 5-11 A-10) has proven troublesome for UMass this season. The Minutemen beat the Rams, 73-68, on the road on Feb. 9, and 70-67 at home on Feb. 26. To advance in the conference tournament, UMass will have to beat its long-time rival for the third time in 34 days. They’ll tip Thursday at 9 p.m. at the Barclays Center. The winner earns a spot in Friday’s 9 p.m. quarterfinal against No. 3 George Washington.
“That’s been a nip-tuck game both times we’ve played them,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “They’re playing really well and they’re playing for something too. This will be a good test for us to see if we can make a little run here and get us ready to go on a nice little run in the NCAA tournament.”
There doesn’t figure to be any surprises as both teams are familiar with each other’s strengths and tendencies.
“We were watching film today and I was thinking, ‘man we keep seeing the same people doing the same things,’” UMass sophomore guard Derrick Gordon said. “Right now, it’s one and done. We have no time for letups. We have to leave it out there on the floor. We just have to go out there and do it.”
Senior point guard Chaz Williams said the Rams have been successful at preventing UMass from getting in rhythm.
“It’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to play like we play. It’s been close games both times we played those guys,” Williams said. “I feel like both times we’ve played them we haven’t played like we really play. It’ll be a good chance for us to play like we play. Hopefully it comes out as a victory as well.”
The Rams arrive in Brooklyn in the midst of their best stretch of 2014. They finished the regular season winning three of their last four, beating St. Bonaventure, Richmond and Fordham. The lone loss came against the Minutemen. Kellogg said URI hasn’t made any fundamental changes.
“They’re the same team, not in a bad way. They’re doing what they’ve done all season long. They’re a little better at it than they were the first and second time we’ve played them. They’re coming off two really good wins and a week off,” Kellogg said. “They’ll be ready to play, but we’ll be ready too. It should be a great basketball game, a hard-fought game. Hopefully we’ll come out with the win.”
Rhode Island coach Danny Hurley said UMass’ experience is an advantage.
“Derek has established a way that they want to play. They have a veteran, battle-tested, obviously very good team that’s played together for a couple of years,” Hurley said. “There will be some adjustments, but at this point in the year it’s hard to change a whole lot of what you do.”
Rhode Island senior guard Xavier Munford leads the Rams with 16.7 points per game, and he’s been slightly better (17.5 ppg) against UMass. Freshman guard E.C. Matthews, who collected Atlantic 10 co-rookie of the year honors on Tuesday, has shined against the Minutemen averaging 19.0 points in the two games.
The Rams are in the tournament for the first time since 2011.
“We have no players or coaches that have ever played or coached in this tournament. This is a new experience for us. We’re excited to be in the event. We’re coming into it with zero experiences, but a lot of youthful enthusiasm,” Hurley said. “We’re a young group. It’s taken them some time to get comfortable and develop some cohesion. We have improved.”
SCHEDULE — UMass and URI will play in the last of four games. No. 8 La Salle and No. 9 St. Bonaventure tip off at noon. La Salle made the 2012 NCAA tournament field, while the Bonnies qualified last year. They each could potentially earn bids to the NIT or College Basketball Invitational tournament with a win or two in Brooklyn.
At 2:30 p.m., No. 5 Dayton plays No. 13 Fordham, which beat No. 12 George Mason 70-67 in the opening round game on Wednesday. The Flyers are on the NCAA tournament bubble and would likely need to avoid a loss Thursday to have a shot. If they do, they’ll play fellow bubble dweller Saint Joseph’s, the No. 4 seed, Friday at 2:30 p.m.
No. 7 Richmond has fizzled down the stretch, but with an RPI of 73, the 18-13 Spiders could certainly get an NIT or CBI invite. A win at 6:30 p.m. Thursday over No. 10 Duquesne would help their cause.
TV — The UMass game will be on Comcast Sportsnet New England, which is picking up the NBC Sports Regional broadcast. Friday’s quarterfinals will be on NBS Sports Network. The semifinals Saturday are on CBS Sports Network and Sunday’s final is on CBS.
RECEPTION — The UMass Alumni Association is hosting a reception two hours prior to each UMass game at 200 Fifth Restaurant, 200 Fifth Ave, Brooklyn. For more information, visit the Alumni Association website.
NOTES — Williams enters the postseason needing 64 points to reach 2,000 in his career, which includes his one year at Hofstra.