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UMass looking good following BC, LSU wins

THOM KENDALL FOR UMASS ATHLETICS
Raphiael Putney, of the University of Massachusetts, takes a shot against LSU, Tuesday at the Mullins Center.

THOM KENDALL FOR UMASS ATHLETICS Raphiael Putney, of the University of Massachusetts, takes a shot against LSU, Tuesday at the Mullins Center.

By MATT VAUTOUR @GazetteUMass
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
(Published in print: Wednesday, November 13, 2013)

AMHERST

Maybe Louisiana State isn’t good. Maybe the preseason optimism surrounding Boston College was misplaced, and maybe beating two teams from BCS Conferences that both had votes in The Associated Press’ preseason top 25 doesn’t mean much.

And maybe there’s no reason to be optimistic after the first 48 hours of the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball season.

But it would be hard to convince the 5,182 people who were in the Mullins Center Tuesday, and the countless others who watched the game either on TV or surreptitiously on computers at work, that the Minutemen’s 2-0 start isn’t the start of something good.

There are ample reasons to be encouraged:

∎ UMass beat a high-profile team that wanted to play fast. The Minutemen have won a lot of games in the past three years by wearing down teams that weren’t used to playing at the their pace. Eventually the opponent would get tired and UMass could pull away. LSU was not only capable of running with the Minutemen, but preferred that tempo. Conceivably, UMass seemed like the team more susceptible to fatigue having played a game less than two days before. But the Minutemen never wore down, riding crowd energy from the opening tip.

∎ Entering the game, for UMass to hang in against the beefy Tigers, keeping Cady Lalanne on the floor seemed essential. But the junior big man, who dominated against Boston College, was limited to four first-half minutes. Despite his absence, the Minutemen lost no ground. Tyler Bergantino, Sampson Carter and Maxie Esho each spent time in the middle and held down the fort. LSU standout big man Johnny O’Bryant scored 14 first-half points, but the Minutemen were able to answer. They won’t face many teams with better inside players all year.

∎ Carter is playing better than he ever has in a UMass uniform. He’s always been a solid piece, but he’s never made this kind of impact against good teams. With his hip surgery well over a year behind him, Carter looks quicker and more explosive than he ever has, with a senior’s maturity to match.

∎ Derrick Gordon figures to get better. The sophomore transfer from Western Kentucky has actually played well in a lot of areas and earned a mini-ovation from the crowd when he crashed into the WMUA broadcast trying to save a loose ball. But he hasn’t scored much. As he continues to shake the rust from sitting out last year, he could give the Minutemen another weapon.

∎ After a very promising sophomore year, Raphiael Putney took a big step back last season and never found consistency. Against BC, Putney disappeared in the second half, making it look like he was headed for more of the same this season. But the long athletic senior rebounded nicely and was an important ingredient in the win over LSU with 14 points, nine rebounds and two blocks.

Last March, when the NCAA tournament field was revealed without UMass being called, the Minutemen’s lack of signature wins, especially in nonconference play, was a big reason why.

UMass’ wins over Harvard and La Salle looked better afterward as both the Crimson and Explorers made noise in the tournament. But before that, double-digit losses to North Carolina State, Tennessee and Miami far overshadowed any victories and earned UMass a repeat trip to the NIT.

It’s pretty much NCAA or bust for the Minutemen now. They have been in the tournament picture each of the past two seasons, but landed of the wrong side of the bubble each time. There’s a lot of basketball to be played between now and March 2014, but the Minutemen could already have two better nonconference wins than any they amassed last year if BC and LSU can live up to their preseason hopes.

For this to matter, UMass needs to stay healthy. An injury to either Chaz Williams or Cady Lalanne leaves the Minutemen in trouble. But as the season starts to hit its stride, maybe there’s reason to believe this could be the group to end the program’s NCAA tournament drought.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage

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