Fresh of a week of rest and their first road victory of the Atlantic 10 season, UMass (15-5, 4-2 A10) will look to stay in first place in the conference and earn one of their best wins of the year when they host St. Louis (16-4, 4-2 A10) Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. EDT at the Mullins Center. (TV: Comcast Sports New England/Radio: UMass Sports Network)
St. Louis has dominated the series between the two squads that has picked up since the 2005-06 season when the Bilikens joined the conference. The Bilikens have won three in a row, including a series sweep last season, to take a 7-3 advantage. One of, if not, the most memorable game played between the two teams occurred in 1998 when St. Louis knocked UMass out of the NCAA Tournament with a 51-46 victory; 1998 was the last time the Minutemen appeared in the Big Dance.
Last Saturday, the Minutemen defeated Richmond 79-64 to earn just their third true road victory of the season, and first against a team in the top 110 in the RPI. Four UMass players finished in double-figures with sophomore guard Jesse Morgan posting a game-high 20 points. Sophomore point guard Chaz Williams was even better with 17 points, seven assists and nine rebounds.
If the Richmond win was big, the Bilikens road win over Xavier Wednesday was huge in terms of Atlantic 10 repercussions. The win ended Xavier's 43-game home winning streak in conference and rearranged the power structure in the Atlantic 10 with St. Louis rising towards the top. Senior forward Brian Conklin scored 10 of his team-high 19 points during a 12-3 run that helped secure the victory for St. Louis.
UMass boasts the conference's top scoring offense (76.9ppg) and the second best rebounding margin in the Atlantic 10. Williams has been the major catalyst offensively, leading the team with 15.9ppg, 5.9apg and 2.3spg, all while creating open looks from his teammates by drawing double-teams from opponent's collapsing defenses. Leading rebounders Sean Carter (6.8rbg), Terrell Vinson (5.9rbg) and Raphiael Putney (5.3rbg) are the main beneficiaries of Williams' arrival in Amherst. The three forwards have dominated the paint on both sides of the court this season, as they've led UMass to the top of the leader boards in rebounding and have begun to chip in more offensively as the season has progressed.
While UMass is the conference's offensive juggernaut, the Bilikens pride themselves on their defensive prowess and their rebounding. St. Louis has held opponents to an Atlantic 10 best 56.2 points per game and have forced 15.8 turnovers per game. They're even pretty strong on the boards, as they're one of six teams with a positive rebounding margin (1.7 rebounds per game). Conklin has been a big part of the Bilikens success, as he averages a team best 14.6 ppg and is second best on the team with 5.3 rbg. He's part of a fantastic one-two punch with junior guard Kwamain Mitchell who's second on the team in scoring (11.7 ppg) and leads the team in assists (4 apg) and steals (28).
Prediction: Saturday's clash in Amherst is one of two very different styles and St. Louis is the biggest threat to date to UMass' perfect 10-0 home record. Much like Duquesne who defeated the Minutemen last week, the Bilikens are a defensive-oriented squad who forces a lot of turnovers, but St. Louis can also boast a far superior front line. If Williams can put on a big performance Umass can certainly win, but it'll be interesting to see how he fares against all that Rick Majerus' defense can throw at him.
St. Louis 67, Umass 59