After a week-long layoff, UMass is back on the court and back home to take on a pesky Quinnipiac team. Two of the top rebounding teams in the country will be on display, as the battle of the boards could determine Saturday night's winner.
Event: Umass Minutemen (8-3) Vs. Quinnipiac Bobcats (5-4)
Date/Time: Saturday December 17, 2011-7 p.m.
Location: Mullins Center (Capacity: 9,493)-Amherst, MA.
Broadcast Info: The Minutemen will be back on TV for the first time in awhile, as NESN will carry the game. Listeners can also tune in to 1510 AM in Boston, to Josh Maurer and Tim Kenney on the radio.
All Time Series: This series is very young, but the games have been fantastic thus far. Quinnipiac and UMass have squared off just twice previously, with a game each of the past two years. The Minutemen have squeaked by in both games with a 62-58 win at home in 2009 and a 66-64 victory last year in Connecticut, behind a last-second, goaltending call.
Last Time Out: It's been awhile since UMass has been in action, a full week in fact. Last Friday, UMass returned to Massachusetts and took down Siena 82-78, behind a 20-point second half from point guard Chaz Williams. After trailing by six at halftime,the Minutemen went on a 16-3 run early in the second half to win their annual game at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield. Freddie Riley added 20 points, on six 3-pointers and Williams and Raphaiel Putney combined for 21 of the team's final 25 points in the win over the Saints.
Quinnipiac is sporting a three-game winning streak after consecutive wins over America East opponents. Sunday they traveled to Burlington and escaped with a 62-58 victory over the Vermont Catamounts. Junior forward Jamee Jackson had a big game with 20 points, seven rebounds and two steals to help push the Bobcats back over .500.
Storylines: Two of the best mid-majors in New England will tipoff Saturday night with winning streaks on the line, as the Minutemen look to stay perfect against Quinnipiac in their young, but very competitive series. For UMass, it will be their first true home game in almost three weeks as the Minutemen's last game at that Mullins Center was a 85-56 win over Towson on November 30. UMass will put their 6-0 in-state record on the line, as they play the first of their final four non conference games on the season.
Saturday's match-up will be a match-up of strengths as the number one and number 12 rebounding teams in the nation battle on the boards. Quinnipiac is the top rebounding in the country at 44.1 rebounds per game and average 17.2 offensive rebounds per game. Even more impressively, Quinnipiac is third in the nation in rebounding margin at 11.6 rebounds per game. Umass leads the Atlantic 10 in rebounding at 41.8 rebounds per game, have pulled down 16 offensive rebounds per game but only have a rebounding margin of three boards per game.
Three-point shooting could be a huge factor for the Minutemen in how the game goes. In eight wins this season, UMass is shooting 37 percent and hitting over seven triples a game; in the Minutemen's three losses, the team has averaged just over four made 3-pointers and hit 17 percent of their attempts. With shots likely at a premium against such a strong rebounding team, UMass will have to take advantage of the Bobcats weak perimeter defense. Quinnipiac's opponents have hit 39 percent of their 3-point attempts on the year, with six or more opponents made 3-pointers in each of the team's four losses.
The Bobcats out of the Northeast Conference are led by a trio of J's. Senior guard James Johnson leads the team with 17 points per game. While Jamee Jackson and Dave Johnson (no relation) are the team's third and fourth leading scorers, with Jackson the team's second leading rebounder and Johnson leading the team in assists.
Players to Watch: The player to be highlighted for UMass could be anyone as the Bobcats provide some of the toughest match-up problems UMass has seen all year and everyone will need to contribute. Freddie Riley is the pick though because of what he can bring to the table. The Minutemen big men will likely be expending most of their focus on the boards, which means additional scoring is going to have come from somewhere. The sharp-shooting junior is more than capable of scoring in bunches but hasn't shown the kind of consistency the team needs. If Riley can be a threat from beyond the arc, it will force the Bobcat guards to step farther away from the basket to defend him and give the taller Minutemen forwards, a better chance of tracking down rebounds.
Sophomore forward Ike Azotam has filled the role of Justin Rutty quite nicely for head coach Tom Moore. The Boston native has is averaging a double-double (13.4 ppg, 10.9 rbg) and chips in a block per game, after serving as a bench player last year. The 6-7 forward has been dominant this season and most impressively has stayed out of foul trouble. If Quinnipiac is going to earn their first win against UMass, the Bobcats are going to need a big game from Azotam; if the forward can dominate the boards, it will slow the game down, and UMass won't be able to push the ball in transition as often.
Prediction: Quinnipiac is the toughest opponent UMass has faced all year at home and Saturday's game should be a dandy. These two teams know each other well after playing the past two years and they don't like each other. The edge goes to UMass because of the X-factor: Chaz Williams. The ultra speedy guard brings a new dynamic to Amherst, which the Bobcats won't be able to keep down for an entire 40 minutes.
UMass 73, Quinnipiac 68