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Unranked UMass basketball eager to rebound

AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts Minutemen are hungry again, and for all those who have grown concerned over how they’ve played recently, hunger is a good thing.

“At the beginning of the season we were hungry, we were really hungry, we were like wild dogs attacking everybody. After we got ranked, that changed,” said junior center Cady Lalanne. “Now that we’re not ranked, I think everybody is getting hungry again. We want to get back in there.”

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It’s been a fairly swift fall for the Minutemen, who started 16-1 and were ranked in the Associated Press poll for 10 consecutive weeks. They’ve gone from a season-high 13th to receiving no votes in two short weeks. Two straight losses and three defeats in four games – all coming on the road – have soured the voters on UMass, despite a 17-4 record and No. 9 ranking in the Ratings Percentage Index.

“Now we’re like a lot of teams: We’re scrapping. This is the time of year where every game is a big game, and I think you can throw a lot of the rankings and things of that nature out the window,” coach Derek Kellogg said.

Maybe the Minutemen can generate some momentum at home. Four of the next six games are at the Mullins Center, starting on Wednesday night against La Salle. The Explorers, who advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 last season, also have dropped three of their last four games. Picked to finish second in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, La Salle (12-9) is tied with UMass for fifth place at 4-3.

Both teams generated high hopes this season, and maintain them as conference play nears its midpoint.

With both squads struggling, Wednesday’s game provides a perfect opportunity to stop the recent slide.

“I don’t think it’s time to hit the panic button, I just believe we need to play well,” said Kellogg. “We need to put a full 40 minutes together. We’ve shown flashes of what made us a good team. I think we need to just get back to the basics.”

Kellogg said that starts with rebounding, especially on the defensive end and limiting second-chance possessions. La Salle features one of the best rebounding big men in the A-10 with Steve Zack. A 6-foot-11-inch junior, Zack leads the conference with 9.8 rebounds a game, and had a 16-point, 16-rebound effort in Saturday’s win over Duquesne. He’s had 12 double-doubles this season.

UMass will go up against Zack without one of its best rebounders. Maxie Esho, second on the team in rebounding, is expected to miss the game after suffering a concussion in Saturday’s 73-68 loss at Saint Joseph’s. Esho left the game in the first half after taking contact while going for a rebound, and he hasn’t practiced since. Kellogg said he’s hoping Esho will be available for Sunday’s game at Rhode Island.

No Esho means more minutes for someone else. Probably Trey Davis, a sophomore point guard who has averaged 28 minutes and 12.7 points over his past three games. His emergence – Kellogg said he briefly considered altering the only starting lineup used this season and inserting Davis, who has come off the bench for all 21 games – could mean sharing the floor more with senior point guard Chaz Williams, the leading scorer for the Minutemen at 15.7 points per game.

No matter the starting lineup, or the eventual rebounding margin or second-chance point differential, UMass could use a win Wednesday, however it can get it. There might not be a panic button, but three losses in four games certainly creates a sense of urgency.

“It’s important to make a statement to ourselves, first off, just to let each other know that we’re still here, we’re still together, we’re still fighting,” Williams said.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com.
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