ith just three games left in the regular season, the Massachusetts men's basketball team finds itself in a distinctly new position. Unlike seasons past, the Minutemen are not coming down the home stretch with thoughts of a regular season Atlantic 10 Championship or first-round bye dancing in their heads. Instead, they must now baton down the hatches, ride out the rest of this tumultuous season and hope that they can make a big splash at the A-10 Tournament with either the four, five or six seed from the East Division.
The march toward securing that No. 4 seed begins in earnest on Saturday afternoon when the Minutemen (10-14, 4-9 A-10) host the Fordham Rams at the Mullins Center. The Rams won the first meeting between the two clubs back on Jan. 12 in the Bronx, 95-86. The Rams shot better than 50 percent that day and were led by Adrian Walton's 25 points and a double-double from Duke Freeman-McKamey.
In order to avoid being swept by Fordham for the first time in school history, UMass must dictate the pace of Saturday's game from the opening tip. The Rams have the fourth ranked scoring offense in the A-10 and like to get up and down the floor quickly like they did in the last meeting. If they are able to do so, the Minutemen could be in trouble as they have struggled to put the ball in the hoop all season long and have won just twice (2-12) when their opponent has scored more than 60 points.
"They want to get up and down the floor," said UMass assistant coach John Leonard. "They've had a rash of injuries with McKamey being hurt, Canal being hurt and Haynes being hurt, but now they're healthy, and they're going to come after us, so we'll have to slow them down."
The Minutemen come into the contest on the back of a three-game losing streak while the Rams have lost six straight - so something must give on Saturday. The likely turning point will come on the glass, especially at the offensive end. Both teams like to shoot a bunch of treys, and as a result there is bound to be a number of second chance opportunities. In the first meeting, the two teams combined for 40 offensive rebounds. Whichever team can grab more and convert those second and third chances into made baskets is more than likely to pick up its fifth A-10 victory of the season and grab sole possession of fourth place.
"It's very important to hold them off inside because their inside game is very good. I think it's very underrated," Leonard said. "They get so many offensive rebounds, and they work very hard. Our big guys are going to have to neutralize that."
These final three games are huge for the Minutemen if they are to get themselves into a position to make a run in the conference tournament. But if it is to make a run in the A-10 tournament, UMass must find a consistent scoring threat to complement Shannon Crooks. Crooks has led the Minutemen in scoring 11 times this season and is the only player averaging in double figures at 14.7 points per game. On Saturday and the rest of the way, one or two Minutemen must step up and help carry the offensive burden, or the season could be over sooner rather than later.
"When you look back at not just our team, but all teams, when you have two or three other scorers, that is when you are successful," Leonard said. "Somebody is going to have to step up, we know Shannon is going to be there, we've seen Anthony (Anderson), we've seen Micah (Brand), we've seen Kit (Rhymer) at times and Raheim (Lamb) at times. One or two of those guys have got to step up on Saturday."
MHERST - It will be a game with postseason ramifications, albeit minor ones, when the University of Massachusetts and Fordham square off with fourth place in the Atlantic 10 East on the line.
UMass and Fordham will try to snap losing streaks of three and six games, respectively, at 4 p.m. Saturday in the William D. Mullins Center.
For Fordham (8-16, 4-9 Atlantic 10), fourth place would be a step forward. The Rams have never finished higher than fifth.
But fourth would be disappointing for the Minutemen (10-14, 4-9 A-10) - who were picked third in the league's preseason poll - but it still beats the alternative.
The Rams are trying to sweep the season series from UMass after winning the previous meeting, 95-86, on Jan. 12. Since joining the Atlantic 10 in 1995-96, Fordham has swept just one season series from any team (Rhode Island 1999-2000).
The first game served as a coming-out party for Fordham freshman Adrian Walton. Making his first start, the point guard from Harlem scored 25 points and dominated. Shannon Crooks led UMass with 24.
It looked like that game would be sophomore swingman Jameel Pugh's breakout game, too. He scored a career-high 22 points, but has barely cracked the lineup since, appearing in just four of the Minutemen's next 11 games, during which he logged a combined 23 minutes.
Pugh appears to have slipped behind sophomores Raheim Lamb and Willie Jenkins and even freshman Brennan Martin.
"Hopefully when he looks at the tape he'll see some of the good things I did last time and maybe that will give me a shot," Pugh said. "At times it's been frustrating, but I have to put my own things aside and do what's best for the team, especially when we're not doing as well as we could be right now."
While Pugh didn't rule out the possibility of transferring, he's trying not to be a distraction to the team.
"If there is any changes to be made, I'll have to look at them when the time comes," he said. "But right now we still have three games left and we have the tournament, but until after that I won't think about any personal things."
Lamb played only four minutes last time against Fordham, but said he learned an important lesson from the game.
"Last time I was in a slump and coach didn't think I was ready. He didn't play me much," Lamb said. "I came in the game and it seemed like my head wasn't there and he sat me the rest of the game. Ever since then I've been playing pretty good."
The win over the Minutemen seemed to jump start the Rams, who then won three of their next four games. Injuries have recently slowed Fordham, which lost its last six coming in.
Things looked a little better Saturday against St. Bonaventure as the Rams hung with the Bonnies before falling 90-84. Big man Duke Freeman-McKamey returned after missing four games and played three minutes on his injured ankle, but couldn't continue.
The week off has given Freeman-McKamey time to heal and he could be back in the Fordham lineup Saturday.
UMass coach Steve Lappas expects that he will play.
"If he was all right enough to go in a game a week ago, I'm going to bet you he'll probably play," Lappas said.
Walton has been a consistent offensive force since playing UMass. After averaging 4.8 points per game in non-conference play, he's averaged 13.5 against league foes.
"His first good game of the year came against us," Lappas said. "We have a better idea of what we need to do to stop him."
Sophomore Smush Parker, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds against the Minutemen, leads the Rams with 17.7 points and 4.8 assists per game. Sophomore big man Jeff McMillan leads a very good rebounding squad, averaging 8.0 boards to go along with 10.7 points per game.
The Minutemen focused heavily on rebounding this week after losing the board battle 55-38 to Fordham last week.
Notes: UMass is 0-3 on Atlantic 10 TV, which is broadcasting Saturday's game locally on NESN.