AMHERST — When the clock ran out on Wednesday and the fans and students at Richmond came rushing onto the floor, senior point guard Chaz Williams didn’t make a beeline for the UMass locker room, like most of his teammates. He lingered for a bit, taking in the scene. More importantly, what it signified.
Records are sketchy and memories fade over time. This much is certain: It had been a good, long while since a basketball victory over UMass prompted anyone to storm the court. Those celebrations are typically reserved for beating the sport’s blue bloods, or a rivalry game, or an unranked team taking down someone with a number next to its name.
For two months now, that’s been UMass. Bolstered by a run of early-season victories over power-conference schools — they’ve already beaten teams from the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, and Big East — the Minutemen cracked the Associated Press Top 25 rankings on Nov. 25 — their first appearance since 1998 — and have been there ever since. UMass is ranked 13th heading into Sunday’s home game against Fordham, a number that is expected to drop after the 58-55 loss at Richmond.
Losing for just the second time this season against 16 wins, Williams didn’t like the feeling. But seeing the Spiders and their fans jump around on the court, it’s a feeling he wanted to embrace.
“Because that’s what we’re up against now. We’re not just playing against the other team, it’s the community and all the staff,” Williams said. “I wanted to get that feeling, let it soak in my body, and understand that every time we do lose this is possibly something that could happen.
“Before, if we lose, the fans just leave. Now it’s a big deal, it’s actually a big deal. It makes us feel that much more accomplished, but we still haven’t accomplished anything, so we can’t get too big-headed about what we’re doing here and what can possibly be. We have to stay the course and keep working.”
Perhaps Wednesday’s loss wasn’t all that surprising, given how UMass games had gone recently. The Minutemen needed second-half comebacks to beat St. Joseph’s (down by 9 with six minutes left), St. Bonaventure (down by 13 with nine minutes left), and George Mason (trailed by 5 with 41 seconds left).
The ability to string stops and scores to erase a late deficit is a great trait for any team. Putting yourself in the position of needing those dramatic runs game after game might signal that something else — a loss — is coming.
“We’ve pulled out some wins in the last couple of minutes, we’re fortunate to have won a few of those games, and it got us down in Richmond,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “It’s nice to know you have guys that are willing to try to win games, and we’ve had that never-say-die, refuse-to-lose attitude. But you can only do that so many times in a season, and as the head coach, I’d prefer if we had a little more comfort coming down the stretch.
“It’s been a nerve-racking couple weeks, but that happens quite frequently when you start conference play and you’re playing really good teams.”
All four of UMass’s Atlantic 10 games have been decided by 5 points or fewer, an indication of two things: Despite some upheaval that saw the conference lose four schools since last season and add one, the level of play in the A-10 is as high as it’s been recently; and because of UMass’s national status, the Minutemen will be getting everybody’s best shot, unable to take a night off and coast.
First, the strength of the A-10. The conference is currently sixth in the Ratings Percentage Index, which tracks teams and conferences based on results and strength of schedule. The A-10 is ahead of the SEC and American Athletic, and behind the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac 12, and Big East.
It’s not just top-heavy, either, although Saint Louis joins UMass in the AP poll, at No. 19. Depth is evident, with eight A-10 schools ranked among the top 76 of the RPI, heading into Saturday’s games. That’s as many as the Big Ten (which has 12 teams) and Pac-12, and three more than the Big East, which grabbed two A-10 schools after last season in Xavier and Butler. Temple left for the American, and Charlotte bolted for Conference USA. The A-10 added George Mason.
“The numbers alone should let you know how good the league is, and going on the road in our conference is even tougher than some might imagine,” Kellogg said. “I hope people realize the teams we’re playing are like the same as those so-called BCS teams, because [we’ve] beaten them, we have a good record against the ACC and the SEC. It’s funny, we lost some teams before the year, and people said we weren’t going to have as many [NCAA Tournament] teams. I think our league’s as strong as it’s ever been.”
UMass was picked fourth in the preseason conference poll, behind VCU, Saint Louis, and La Salle. Saint Louis is the only team unbeaten in the A-10 at 5-0, with the Minutemen among four teams with one conference loss.
With 12 conference games remaining, UMass will be tested more nights than not.
“We found that out the first game. It’s going to be tough, and every night is going to be a battle,” said Williams, who leads UMass in scoring at 15.8 points per game, and was named on Wednesday to the 25-player midseason list for the Wooden Award, given to the country’s best player. “Every team in the A-10 is going to give us their best shot. It’s not going to be easy, but we’re prepared and ready for the ride.”
Williams is usually the one driving, and he likes speed. Kellogg prefers an uptempo style, and the Minutemen scored at least 80 points in wins over Boston College, LSU, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Brigham Young.
The pace has slowed some since conference play started, with UMass averaging about 7 points fewer. In both losses this season — to Florida State and Richmond — the Minutemen were held to 55 points.
“We haven’t been getting up and down as much as I would like, really for the last five or six games,” Kellogg said. “Obviously, defense wins championships, and rebounding, but when we don’t put the ball in the hole it slows down our momentum and our energy. I think some of the other teams in the league, their best way to compensate for how we play is to slow it down, grind the game out. Scoring 55 points for us is definitely not enough.”
Fordham likes a fast pace, as well, so look for Sunday’s game to be in the 70s or 80s, not the 50s. Kellogg might not care what the score is, so long as UMass gets back to winning.
“I usually stay away from the clichés until we play another game, but they do realize what’s at stake here,” Kellogg said. “We’ve been unfortunate at times in years past that one or two games we’ve let slip away have cost us NCAA Tournament bids. Going on the road to Richmond, losing, having them rush the floor and to hear [Richmond] in the locker room, I’m hoping that’s a wake-up call. I hope our guys understand the importance of every possession of every game, because one or two possessions can cost you a berth.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.