Only option for UM is automatic bid
By Rob Greenfield, The Daily Collegian Columnist, 2/15/2007

This is a somewhat obvious sentiment at this stage in the Massachusetts men's basketball team's season, but as the shadow of a looming March continues to grow, it seemed appropriate to set this straight.

UMass has only one way of making the NCAA Tournament: Atlantic City. The Minutemen have to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament, or captains Rashaun Freeman and Stephane Lasme will have played their UMass careers without sniffing the rarified March Madness air.

The Minutemen entered this trek through college basketball with a powerful out-of-conference schedule and a revamped squad with junior transfer Gary Forbes, freshmen Tiki Mayben and Ricky Harris ready to make an immediate impact.

But the season destined for stardom hasn't really shaped up that way. The Minutemen have a solid 17-7 overall record with a similarly respectable 7-3 conference record.

Both of those marks are a significant improvement from last season's 13-15 record - but they aren't glamorous enough to get a prestigious at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament.

"UMass needed to win a couple of the high-profile non-conference games it scheduled besides Louisville," ESPN.com's college basketball editor Andrew Glockner said via email yesterday. "UMass also needed the A-10 to be a bit better than it is."

Teams on the bubble earn their stripes through wins against the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) Top 50 and Top 100. They also get recognition through tough road wins and neutral-site wins.

And while the Minutemen are 9-5 away from home (6-5 on the road and 3-0 at neutral sites), that record just won't cut it with the selection committee without some big wins against the RPI's Top 50 or some ranked opponents.

ESPN's Andy Katz, who has been an advocate for Travis Ford's Minutemen, believes that the Minutemen didn't do enough to get an elusive at-large bid.

"I thought [UMass] had to win at least two of their big games," Katz said in email. "They won one."

Katz is referring to the four-point win over Louisville on the road. Rick Pitino's bunch was victim to some sharp shooting from the Minutemen, but that win didn't turn out to be the attention-grabbing 'W' that UMass needed.

Louisville isn't in the Top 50 in RPI despite its membership in the Big East conference and its recent drubbing of Pittsburgh, and the Cardinals have been inconsistent creatures this season.

The other big game that Katz mentioned was Kentucky. The Minutemen played the Wildcats at Rupp Arena when UK was not ranked but flirting with the Top 25.

UMass lost that one, 82-68, and a win over a good SEC opponent would've looked nice and shiny on a resume come March.

Kentucky, Pittsburgh and Boston College are all in the RPI Top 20, and all were on the Minutemen's schedule this season. The Eagles beat the Minutemen at the Mullins Center by 11, the Panthers beat UMass by 17 and Kentucky won by 14.

They're understandable losses to very good teams, but UMass needed one victory of those three games to make a splash. Conference losses to Temple and Rhode Island don't help, simply because of the Atlantic 10's regular-ness.

But all is not lost. UMass has a shot to win the A-10 Tournament in Atlantic City, although it will be difficult to beat the likes of Xavier and George Washington.

"They've got a great shot to win it on a neutral court in Atlantic City," Katz said.

"I think they have a chance to win the auto-bid," Glockner echoed. "But Xavier is probably the best team in the conference right now."

Agreed. The Musketeers will probably get an at-large bid if they don't win the conference tournament, leaving UMass with just one path to the NCAA's.

This season has been a success for UMass. Having a 17-7 resume is excellent by most standards. But Ford and the UMass faithful won't be satisfied without an invite to The Big Dance.

Katz believes that this season was a significant improvement over the 2005-06 campaign.

"[This season] was a definite step in the right direction," Katz said. "As long as Travis Ford stays and continues to build instead of bolting."

It will be difficult for Ford to regroup after the graduation of Stephane Lasme, Rashaun Freeman and James Life - the team's three top scorers. But Ford will do it with some extra hop if UMass can muster a late-year run into the madness.

It is clear that the Minutemen's fate rests in Atlantic City. UMass is playing for a rank in the conference tournament so they'll have an easier path to get to Xavier, GW, or Rhode Island in the later rounds.

There are only a couple of weeks left until we find out how serious the Minutemen are about getting into the postseason. Xavier ousted UMass in the first round of last year's A-10 Tournament and went on to win it, receiving the automatic bid to the biggest basketball tournament on the planet.

UMass wants to reverse the roles this time around.


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