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UMass hoping to build off strong start at Charleston Classic

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
University of Massachusetts junior Derrick Gordon, right, dribbles toward the basket while freshman Zach Coleman guards him during a men's basketball preseason practice at UMass.

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO University of Massachusetts junior Derrick Gordon, right, dribbles toward the basket while freshman Zach Coleman guards him during a men's basketball preseason practice at UMass.

By MATT VAUTOUR @GazetteUMass
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
(Published in print: Thursday, November 21, 2013)

The Minutemen will open with Nebraska at 12:30 p.m. at TD Arena. Playing the Cornhuskers not only gives the Minutemen a chance for a win over a Big Ten team, but the winner will likely get a shot at No. 19 ranked New Mexico in the second round. UNM and Alabama-Birmingham play at 3 p.m. The winners play each other Friday at 2:30 p.m. while the losers meet Friday at noon. All teams are off Saturday before playing their final games Sunday.

Just playing the Lobos would likely help UMass’ long-term strength of schedule and RPI. But UMass coach Derek Kellogg wasn’t thinking about what playing New Mexico would mean. While most preseason projections picked Nebraska near the bottom of the Big Ten, Kellogg expects the Cornhuskers to be better than that.

“I would say they’re much better than where they were picked in the conference,” Kellogg said. “They’re a scary team. They remind me a little bit of ourselves. They play two hybrids, a couple guards and a big guy who steps away from the basket.”

While the Minutemen have lessened their dependence on 3-pointers, NU relies heavily on them. The Huskers are shooting 41.9 percent from deep (18-for-43).

Nebraska is 3-0 so far and the first two of those wins over Florida Gulf Coast and Western Illinois came without senior Ray Gallegos, the team’s top returning scorer. The 6-foot-2 guard returned and scored 18 points against South Carolina State.

Kellogg thought playing three games in four days would give his team an experience that would mimic postseason.

“It’s almost like a tournament feel — Atlantic 10, NCAA or NIT,” Kellogg said. “You give them a quick game plan and get ready to play. I’m hoping our guys, being more mature and a little older, having been through these tournaments two years ago at the Battle for Atlantis and last year in Puerto Rico, have learned from them.”

The event will feature one former UMass Atlantic 10 rival in Temple, which left the league after last season for the American Athletic Conference, and one future A-10 foe in Davidson, which will join the league in 2014-15.

The following is a look at the seven teams UMass will be competing for the tournament championship with:

Nebraska

Record: 3-0

Leading scorer: Shavon Shields, 17.0 ppg.

Notes: After finishing 15-18 last year, the Huskers have opened the season at with three straight victories. But those wins came over Florida Gulf Coast, Western Illinois and South Carolina State, so Nebraska has yet to truly prove itself. But this tournament gives them the opportunity to do so.

New Mexico

Record: 2-0

Leading scorer: Cameron Bairstow, 25.5 ppg.

Notes: The No. 19 ranked Lobos are the clear favorites in the field heading in. After finishing 29-6 last year, UNM brings back most of the core of that team under new coach Craig Neal, including Mountain West Player of the Year Kendall Williams, who was a nominee for the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s best point guard.

Alabama-Birmingham

Record: 3-0

Leading scorer: C.J. Washington, 20.0 ppg.

Notes: Coming off of last year’s 16-17 season, UAB was picked fifth in the Conference USA preseason poll, but started strong with wins over Division II Columbus State, Rutgers and Troy. The Blazers figure to have their hands full opening against New Mexico.

Clemson

Record: 3-0

Leading scorer: K.J. McDaniels, 17.3 ppg.

Notes: While Clemson is a notoriously light early season scheduler, the Tigers already have a win over rival South Carolina as they try to bounce back from last year’s 13-18 season that ended with seven straight losses. They could be the favorite to reach the championship game from that side of the Charleston bracket.

Georgia

Record: 1-1

Leading scorer: Charles Mann, 15.5 ppg.

Notes: Like many teams in this field, the Bulldogs are trying to overcome a tough 2012-13 at 15-17. They opened the season with a win over Wofford, but fell to rival Georgia Tech and were picked 11th in the SEC preseason poll.

Davidson

Record: 0-3

Leading scorer: De’Mon Brooks, 17.0 ppg.

Notes: The Wildcats are the field’s only winless team, but two of their losses have come to Duke and Virginia as Davidson annually challenges itself against elite nonconfernce teams. Brooks is the Southern Conference’s preseason player of the year and should give Georgia all it can handle.

Temple

Record: 1-2

Leading scorer: Will Cummings 17.7 ppg.

Notes: The Owls are rebuilding in their first season in the AAC after losing several key pieces from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad. They have already lost to Towson and Kent State and figure to have their hands filled with Clemson in their Charleston opener.

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