Derek Kellogg's young UMass (17-6, 6-3 Atlantic 10) squad will begin their most difficult stretch of the season Saturday when they travel to Hagan Arena to take on St. Joseph's (15-10, 5-5 A10) at 7 p.m. EDT (TV: None/Radio: UMass Sports Network)
Sitting just a half-game out of first place in the Atlantic 10 standings, the Minutemen will play four of their next five games against teams at .500 or above in the conference. The opponents (at St. Joes, LaSalle, Xavier, at Dayton and at Temple) have a combined .604 winning percentage and include three of the other top five teams in the conference.
This will be the second time UMass and the Hawks have played this season with the Minutemen taking a 71-62 victory at the Mullins Center on Jan 14. After falling behind by 17 points early in the first half (20-3), UMass mounted a huge comeback behind Chaz Williams who finished with 22 points and seven assists. Redshirt sophomore Raphiael Puntey added 17 points and junior forward Terrell Vinson chipped in with 11 points in one of the Minutemen's biggest wins of the year.
UMass won a pivotal game on Wednesday, when they took down a St. Bonaventure team that was tied with the Minutemen for second place. Jesse Morgan's career-high 24 points, on 6-of-7 shooting, were enough to help the Minutemen stay perfect at home (12-0) and squeak by with a 76-67 victory behind two big second-half runs.
Wednesday night didn't produce nearly the same results for the Hawks, who fell to 5-5 in the conference with a 72-60 home loss against St. Louis. Despite 15 points from sophomore Langston Galloway and a 37-26 rebounding advantage, the Hawks couldn't overcome the Bilikens' strong 3-point shooting: 10-of-20 from beyond the arc. It was just the second home loss for St. Joes all season long.
The Minutemen will have to overcome their road woes if they want to stay in contention in the Atlantic 10 and stay alive for their first bid to the NCAA Tournament in over a decade and it won't be easy against the Hawks. Junior guard Carl Jones (15.9 ppg) leads a balanced St. Joes attack that has four players averaging double-figures. While sophomore forward Halil Kanacevic leads the team in rebounding (8 ppg, 7.5 rbg), fellow sophomore C.J. Aiken is the big man the Minutemen have to be wary of. The 6-9 Pennsylvania native is fourth in the nation in blocked shots (3.8 per game) and also adds 11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.
Aiken's length could cause Williams trouble when he gets into the lane and looks for easy shots, which could cripple the Minutemen's offense. The diminutive sophomore point guard has been erratic on the road to begin with and that's a big part of why UMass is just 6-6 on the road, with losses against almost every quality opponent they've played.
Prediction: UMass can win this game if they can accomplish two things: Williams making smart decisions and not turning the ball over and getting Aiken into foul trouble. The Minutemen have really taken their cues from Williams all season long, a strong performance could launch to them to a huge road win, another mediocre road affair and it could get ugly for the Minutemen. I'm afraid Phil Martelli's group's extreme length (including the team's guards) will be just enough to knock Williams off his game.
St. Joes 75, UMass 68