When March rolls around and college basketball’s regular season ends, opportunity knocks with the arrival of conference tournaments. A disappointing regular season can quickly be swept aside with a deep tournament run.
In the case of the Massachusetts Minutemen, if they want to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998, it’ll likely require an accomplishment not many teams have done. They’ll need to win four games in four days at the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament, starting with Thursday’s first-round meeting against George Washington. Tip time is scheduled for 9 p.m.
It’s a tall order, especially for a team that prefers a quicker pace and might run into stamina issues should it continue to advance. And while the Minutemen have yet to play even on three consecutive days this season — or authored a four-game win streak in conference play — they did win seven straight games early in the season. So, that’s what coach Derek Kellogg will hang his hat on when preparing his team for what they hope will be a multi-game stay at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“The reason why I think we have an opportunity is that we have won four games in a row throughout the season at one time or another, and we’ve played some of the top [Atlantic 10] teams pretty tough,’’ Kellogg said. “We don’t really have to change too much of how we play and what we’re trying to accomplish.
“The one great thing as coach is regardless of what’s going to happen throughout the season, every team who makes it to Brooklyn has an opportunity to win the tournament. I think any one of the 12 teams that are coming down are capable of stringing together four games, so you can kind of breathe new life into your team, whether you’re the 1 seed or the 12 seed, to say, ‘All right, this is a new tournament, this is an opportunity that is presenting itself, and if we’re capable of stringing together four straight wins, we become an NCAA Tournament team.’ ’’
First comes George Washington, which beat the Minutemen in the teams’ only meeting this season, 79-76, on Jan 19 at the Mullins Center. The winner of Thursday night’s game between No. 6 seed UMass (19-10) and No. 11 George Washington (13-16) advances to Friday’s quarterfinals against third-seeded Temple. Second-seeded VCU could be waiting in the semifinals, and Saint Louis is the top seed. Counting George Washington, the Minutemen are 0-4 this season against the teams that could be standing in their way this week.
And while UMass’s RPI (58th as of Wednesday) might optimistically put the Minutemen on the outer reaches of the NCAA Tournament at-large bubble, none of the respected bracketologists currently include the Minutemen in the field of 68. So, if they want in, they’ll need to play their way in.
“The NCAA was on our mind at the beginning of the season — I’m not saying it’s not on our mind — but we don’t talk about it as much,’’ said junior point guard Chaz Williams. “We’re just trying to focus on the opportunity we have. Now we have to take it and perform.’’
After many years in Atlantic City, the conference has relocated its tournament to the new Barclays Center, current home of the NBA’s Nets and future home of the NHL’s Islanders. It figures to bring more exposure, and means a return home for Williams, a Brooklyn native who said he’ll have about 100 family members and friends in the stands for Thursday’s game.
“It means a lot to the city. Brooklyn is known for basketball, a lot of good players came from Brooklyn,’’ Williams said, rattling off a list of legends that includes local products Bernard King, Sebastian Telfair, and Stephon Marbury, and natives Michael Jordan and Carmelo Anthony.
Williams isn’t on that list, but he’s important to the Minutemen, leading his team in scoring (15.3 points per game), assists, and steals. They’ll need him to be on, in front of so many of his fans, if they want to challenge for the championship.
Crazy things happen in March. It’s why Kellogg said he’ll remind his team that the No. 1 seed doesn’t always win conference tournaments, and why upstarts can find some momentum and ride it all week. UMass can think back a year ago, when it upset top-seeded Temple in the quarterfinals before losing to No. 4 seed (and eventual champion) St. Bonaventure in the semifinals.
“There’s a new vibe, a new feeling,’’ said senior forward Terrell Vinson, about to embark on his last trip through the postseason. “It’s March Madness. You never know what can happen, and you can’t take anybody lightly.’’
At least UMass comes in playing well. The Minutemen closed the regular season by winning three of their last four, including at Xavier and at Rhode Island. George Washington ended a four-game losing streak by beating Dayton, 81-80, in its regular-season finale.
It’s the Colonials, UMass insists, who have its undivided attention. Not the larger picture of the Atlantic 10 tournament, or the possibility of returning to the NCAA Tournament. The Minutemen know those dreams die with a loss Thursday night.
“When we play our style of basketball and do what Coach wants us to do, we feel like nobody in the country can play with us,’’ Williams said. “We’re focused. It’s going to be a war every night. We’re ready for it.’’