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Atlantic 10 Tournament 2012: UMass Faces Difficult Road To Glory

After finishing off the season with an 88-83 victory over Rhode Island Saturday, the Minutemen learned they would enter the Atlantic 10 Tournament as the eight seed for the second consecutive year. Despite finishing with the best overall record amongst four teams in a four-way tie for fifth in the conference at 9-7, UMass earned the eight spot due to having the worst record against the other four teams in common: ((5) St. Joes 3-1, (6) Dayton 2-1, (7) LaSalle 2-2, UMass 1-4).

The eight seed does come with a home contest in the first round, as UMass will look to avenge a January road loss at Duquesne, when the teams take the floor Tuesday night at the Mullins Center at 7 p.m. EDT. Tuesday's winner will get to make the trip to Atlantic City for the neutral site Quarterfinals of the tournament to take on top-seeded Temple at Noon on Friday.

UMass will be looking to advance to the Quarterfinals for just the second time in 10 years, after being upset by (9) Dayton last season in Amherst and losing to Duquesne in the tournament's first round in 2009. In that loss to the Dukes, UMass used a late 29-11 rally to close the final margin to 91-81, but the Minutmen couldn't overcome 30 combined second half points from Eric Evans and Melquan Bolding. While Bolding transferred to Fairleigh Dickinson after his sophomore year, Evans has stuck around and is one of two seniors on a 16-14 Dukes squad, that finished 7-9 in Atlantic 10 play.

A Rough Decade

Despite having a series of talented and successful young coaches manning the bench in Amherst, the Minutemen have had almost zero success in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. The Minutemen have won just two conference tournament games in the past 10 years under Steve Lappas (1-4), Travis Ford (0-3) and fourth-year head coach Derek Kellogg (1-3). Even in the two seasons UMass managed to advance out of the first round, the Minutmen were quickly bounced in the quarterfinal round.

Minutemen fans haven't seen a run to the championship game since the beginning of the millenia, when current Drexel head coach Bruiser Flint led UMass to the title game only to lose to Temple in his final season in Amherst.

You have to go back all the way to 1995-96 to find the Minutemen's last Atlantic 10 title. Led by a very young John Calipari, UMass went 35-2 and rolled over Temple 75-61 in the Atlantic 10 Championship Game en route to the program's only Final Four Appearance (although the NCAA later stripped the school of all those NCAA wins). That A10 Championship Title marked the fifth straight year UMass had won the crown and was Calipari's last season in Amherst before heading to the NBA to coach the New Jersey Nets

Those five straight Atlantic 10 titles are the only conference tournament championships UMass has won in their history. UMass does have one NCAA Appearance since 1996. In 1998 the team finished 21-11 and earned an at-large bid to the Big Dance only to lose to St. Louis in the first round.

Tough Road To Title

If UMass can take down Duquesne Tuesday and that's far from a given, they will have to play #25 Temple in the Quarterfinals. The two teams met in Philadelphia Wednesday, with the Owls edging UMass 90-88 in overtime. Despite the close margin, it could be difficult for the Minutemen to repeat the effort, after playing what was by far their best game away from home all season long. Temple is not only considered the class of the conference but one of the top teams in the country, as the Owls have two of the top scorers in the conference and one of the most talented point guards as well.

A win over the Owls would pit UMass against the winner of (4) St. Bonaventure and (5) St. Joes/(12) Charlotte on Saturday. UMass holds wins over all three teams this season but all three wins came at the friendly confines of the Mullins Center, where the Minutemen went 12-1 on the season. St. Bonaventure finished the season red-hot with four wins in their last five games and St. Joes is one of the most talented teams in the entire conference.

Assuming the Minutemen were to make a run all the way to Sunday's Championship game, the Minutemen would likely face either (2) St. Louis or (3) Xavier. Either matchup wouldn't be ideal because of those two team's immense talent but UMass did beat both teams during the regular season, albeit at home.

It will all start Tuesday night in Amherst, as UMass looks to extend their season and potentially earn a spot in the NIT if not the NCAA with a strong showing.