Four months after being picked to finish twelfth out of 14 teams in the Atlantic 10, UMass enters the final stretch of their season in a three-way tie for third in the conference and a lot to play for. Not only are the Minutemen in the fight for a first round bye in the Atlantic 10 Tournament (top four teams get byes), but UMass (19-8, 8-5 A10) continues to linger in the at-large conversation for the NCAA Tournament.
With that being said, the Minutemen begin their toughest road trip of the season when they play Dayton tonight at 6 p.m. EDT and then travel to Philadelphia to take on Temple Wednesday at 7 p.m. If UMass wants to really get into the thick of postseason discussions and keep their hold on third place, the Minutemen will need to find a way to beat a Dayton (17-10, 7-6) team that is 13-4 on the year at the University of Dayton Arena.
Things have been extremely tight between the two programs, with the all-time series tied at 9-9. Last season the two teams split a pair of games in Amherst, with UMass winning 55-50 in their Atlantic 10 Conference opener, only to fall 78-50 to the Flyers in the first round of the A10 Tournament in the 8-9 game. UMass has had the edge recently, winning five of the past seven games, including two of the past three in Dayton.
Wednesday the Minutemen won a must-win game over Atlantic 10 preseason favorites Xavier. Sophomore point guard Chaz Williams finished with a career-high 29 points, to go along with nine assists and five rebounds as the Minutemen edged out Xavier 80-73. The win ended a six-game losing streak against Xavier and the Minutemen's first two-game losing streak of the 2011-12 campaign.
Dayton also came up with a big victory Wednesday when they traveled to Pittsburgh and grabbed a 74-62 victory over Duquesne. Senior guard Paul Williams led the Flyers with 18 points and 6'9" junior center Matt Kavanaugh added his second-consecutive double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds) in the win. Five Flyers finished in double-figures, as Dayton only had six players score, and four bench players record minutes.
UMass is led by Williams who is having a season for the ages for a player in a Minutemen uniform. The Hofstra transfer not only is on pace to become the first UMass player to lead the team in points, assists, steals and minutes in 30 years, but also is likely to leave his mark in the record books with a Top-Five season mark in both assists and steals. Williams currently leads the team with 16 ppg, a conference-best 6.3 apg, 2.1 spg and 33.5 mpg, all while being listed at 5'9", and realistically standing closer to 5'6" or 5'7".
Redshirt sophomore Raphiael Putney has had a breakout season averaging 10.3 ppg and 5.7 rbg and senior center Sean Carter has been a steadying force leading the team in rebounding (6.2 rbg), while averaging 7.6 ppg.
After a 12-4 start to the season that had the Flyers sitting in first place in the Atlantic 10, Dayton has been wildly inconsistent since early January with a 5-6 record. The loss of third-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder Josh Benson for the season to a knee injury in late December not only took away one of the team's best players, but reduced Dayton's rotation to just eight or nine regulars.
Redshirt junior point guard Kevin Dillard leads the team with 12.9 points and 5.7 assists per game. Dillard is also one of four players who are shooting over 80 percent from the free throw line, as Dayton is the number one free throw shooting team in the Atlantic 10 at 77 percent. Senior forward Chris Johnson (12.1ppg, 6.3 rbg) and Kavanaugh (9.4 ppg, 6.2 rbg) have helped Dayton become one of the best rebounding teams in the conference with a 3.6 rebound per game margin.
The game will be televised nationally on CBS Sports Network and can be heard on the radio on the UMass Sports Network.
Prediction: UMass has been woefully inconsistent away from the Mullins Center and have been just as bad after picking up a big win, neither trend bodes well for the young Minutemen. Dayton and UMass both pride themselves on their rebounding abilities but the game might come down to who can shoot the ball better. Both team's are amongst the top four in 3-point made field goals per game but UMass has shot 15 percent worse from behind the arc in losses this season than in wins.
Dayton 65, UMass 60