This 2011-12 edition of UMass basketball wasn't projected to be a contender in the Atlantic 10, in fact the Minutemen received just 107 votes (12th out of 14 teams) in the conference preseason poll, less than half of the total Xavier, Temple, St. Louis and St. Bonaventure earned. Yet with just five of 16 conference games remaining, the Minutemen sit in a tie for third place with Xavier, trailing only Temple (9-2) and St. Louis (9-3).
The Minutemen (18-7, 7-4 A10) will look to keep their hopes of a conference title and a potential NCAA Tournament or NIT bid alive, when they host LaSalle (17-9, 6-5 A10) Saturday evening at 6 p.m. EDT with their perfect 12-0 record at the Mullins Center on the line. (TV: CBS Sports Network/Radio: UMass Sports Network)
These two teams played more than a month ago in a game of two drastically different halves. LaSalle jumped out to a 26-point halftime lead (51-25) behind 56 percent shooting from the field, including 10-of-16 (62 percent) from behind the arc, and 20 points off 16 UMass turnovers. The second half though was all UMass, as the Minutemen used a 21-6 opening run to get back into the game, and were able to cut the deficit to as few as five points. Sophomore point guard Chaz Williams led the Minutemen with 24 points, while Jesse Morgan chipped in with 22 points and senior center Sean Carter added a career-high 18 points.
UMass is coming off a loss last Saturday, when they took their second of three trips to Philadelphia in conference play. St. Joseph's made sure the Minutemen wouldn't come away with the sweep, as they used a 14-0 run and UMass' ice-cold shooting in the second half to come away with a 73-62 victory. The Minutemen shot just 33.8 percent from the game and 25 percent from behind the arc, as they spoiled a double-double from Williams (11 points and 10 assists).
Things haven't been any easier recently for the Explorers, who have lost three in a row. After winning four in a row to move to 6-2 in conference, LaSalle has dropped three consecutive games, with road losses at St. Joes and Richmond, and a home loss to St. Louis that ended the Explorers 14-game home winning streak. Freshmen forward Jerrell Wright was the lone player to finish in double figures against the Bilikens, with 18 points and a team-high nine rebounds in 27 minutes of play.
Junior guard Ramon Galloway leads four Explorers averaging double-digit points with 14.7 points and team bests 58 3-pointers and a 47.2 percentage on 3-point shots. Fellow guard Earl Pettis adds 14.5 points per game and point guard Tyreek Duren chips in with a team-high 4.2 assists per game and 13.6 points per game. Wright is the lone big man to start for the Explorers, as he leads the team with six rebounds and adds 9.3 ppg.
Prediction: LaSalle's four guard system gave the Minutemen a ton of problems in the first half of the first game between the two teams and smaller lineups have been effective against UMass all year. The ability of the Explorers to knock down shots from deep and easily break down UMass' full court pressure, took away the Minutemen's biggest strength: their ability to push the pace and get easy buckets.
If UMass is going to earn the split with the Explorers, they'll need to do a better job of handling the ball (19 turnovers) and do a better job on the boards (41-31 LaSalle). If the Minutemen can accomplish both of those feats and focus on getting the ball inside to Carter they should be able to avenge their earlier loss and stay perfect at home.
UMass 68, LaSalle 64