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UMass enters crucial stretch

Games against A-10 contenders up next

Poor free throw shooting and errant 3-pointers have been a headache lately for Minutemen coach Derek Kellogg.

rich barnes/getty images

Poor free throw shooting and errant 3-pointers have been a headache lately for Minutemen coach Derek Kellogg.

After Wednesday’s 91-80 home loss to last-place George Mason, University of Massachusetts coach Derek Kellogg spelled out the similarities that surface for the Minutemen in defeat.

“Free throw shooting, 3-point shooting. The Achilles’ heel for us when we’ve lost games has been that,” Kellogg said after Wednesday’s loss. “You compile missing 1-footers, missing threes, and missing free throws with not coming up with enough 50-50 balls, that’s a recipe that we’ve had when we’ve lost games this year.”

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It’s been happening with greater frequency of late. UMass won its first 10 games and opened the season 16-1, climbing as high as No. 13 in the Associated Press poll, and 12th in the USA Today coaches’ poll. But in their past seven games, the Minutemen are just 3-4, a slide that’s seen them fall out of the national rankings and toward the middle of the Atlantic 10 standings. With a 6-4 conference mark, UMass (19-5 overall) sits in sixth place.

One thing this bumpy stretch has not done, at least so far, is knock UMass out of consideration for a spot in the NCAA Tournament (the Minutemen haven’t been since 1998). With an RPI of 20 and only one loss to a sub-100 team (George Mason), the Minutemen don’t appear to be close to the bubble, and would safely be in the field of 68 if the tournament started now. On Friday, a group of college basketball writers and bracketologists, going through a mock selection process that mimics the one the NCAA men’s basketball committee will undertake, slotted UMass as a No. 8 seed.

The concern, however, comes with the Minutemen’s remaining schedule, because UMass still has games with the top three teams in the A-10 standings. UMass plays at third-place George Washington (19-5, 7-3) on Saturday at 2 p.m., then hosts second-place VCU (20-5, 8-2) next Friday. The Minutemen play at Dayton (17-8, 5-5) on March 1, and UD Arena is never an easy place to play, even when the Flyers are struggling, which isn’t the case this season. The regular-season finale comes March 9 at home against A-10 leader Saint Louis (22-2, 9-0), ranked 12th by the AP this week.

If UMass can’t win one of those four games — they might be the underdog in all four — they would do no better than 8-8 in the conference, a dangerous mark for a team with at-large NCAA Tournament aspirations. But the challenging schedule can also be looked at as opportunity: If UMass can finish strong and beat a team or two ahead of it in the standings — say, Saint Louis or VCU — the Minutemen could improve their NCAA seeding scenario.

So, starting with Saturday’s game against the Colonials, Kellogg hopes the Minutemen play with a sense of urgency as the most important stretch of the season begins. Well, to a point.

“You have to play with a sense of urgency without panicking. Play hard, but not rushed. If you have an open three, make it, don’t feel like it’s the last shot of the year. When we’ve done that, it’s really been when we’ve come up with most of the loose balls, because then it’s a little less imperative of every possession, every play,” Kellogg said.

UMass ended a three-game road losing streak with a win on Sunday at Rhode Island, and won the last time it played George Washington at the Charles Smith Center, site of Saturday’s game. That was two years ago. This time, the Colonials will be without guard Kethan Savage, the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.4 points per game. Savage is expected to miss a few more weeks with a broken foot.

Even without Savage, George Washington has four other players who average at least 11.5 points per game, and at 75.2 points boasts the third-highest scoring offense in the league, behind UMass (77.4) and VCU (76.5).

In the Minutemen’s five losses — to Florida State, Richmond, St. Bonaventure, Saint Joseph’s, and George Mason — they averaged just 64.6 points per game, nearly 16 below their average when they win. There’s also a big drop in 3-point percentage (25 percent in losses, 39.7 percent in wins) and rebound margin (minus-0.6 in losses, plus-4.8 in wins). The vaunted UMass press doesn’t generate as many turnovers in losses, either: 12.6, compared with 13.2 in wins.

Another constant in UMass’s losses, Kellogg said, is not tied to any statistic, and can be hard to quantify. But a coach knows when it’s there, and when it’s missing.

“I’ve said it all along: When we come with high intensity and high energy, it seems like the ball goes in more, we make free throws, we play a little better. When we’re not forcing turnovers and playing with that kind of intensity, we’re another team, we’re like everybody else,” Kellogg said. “That’s kind of the key to us being good and playing as a unit.”

It’s the kind of effort Kellogg wants to see, starting Saturday at George Washington. A victory would net UMass its third straight 20-win season, and improve its NCAA Tournament projection. A loss? The Minutemen can’t afford too many more of those. A tough closing stretch might leave UMass on the wrong side of the bubble, which would make the trip to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for the A-10 tournament — which awards an automatic NCAA berth to the winner — that much more important.

March, always the measure of a team’s season, is only two weeks away.

“I try to keep them day-to-day, but I think everybody is looking toward the Barclays Center and things along those lines,” Kellogg said.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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