AMHERST — Now that the UMass Minutemen have advanced to the NCAA Tournament, what will it take for them to win a game? Or, as they’re hoping, to win multiple games?
They finally have an opponent to prepare for — Tennessee (22-12), which beat Iowa, 78-65, in overtime in a matchup of No. 11 seeds on Wednesday night, with sixth-seeded UMass (24-8) awaiting on Friday in Raleigh, N.C.
Without knowing who they’d be playing, the Minutemen have used the time since Selection Sunday to focus on themselves, get physically healthy and mentally prepared for what’s to come. Now the time is almost here, which begs a question: When the vast majority of the 64 remaining teams are really good, what tends to separate one really good team from another?
Derek Kellogg has a theory, and he should know. Kellogg was a guard at UMass from 1992-95, the Minutemen making the NCAA Tournament all four seasons and winning at least one game each year. As a coach, he’s now been on the bench at three schools that have made the tournament. He was a graduate assistant at George Mason when the Patriots qualified in 1999; spent eight seasons with ex-UMass coach John Calipari at Memphis, playing in the NCAAs five times and losing to Kansas in the 2008 championship game; and now he’s in his sixth season with the Minutemen, taking his alma mater to the tournament for the first time since 1998.
As a player and a coach, Kellogg has been part of 10 teams (UMass this season makes 11) that have combined to win 18 games in the NCAA Tournament. Granted, advancing has plenty to do with matchups and execution, but Kellogg has noticed some traits over the years that most winning teams typically have. He thinks UMass has them this season, too.
Requirement No. 1: “I think you need very good guard play in the tournament, or at least solid guards that know the game plan and can do it, and we’ve always had that with our good teams,” Kellogg said. “I think that’s something that we have here.”
Guard play is probably the Minutemen’s strength, with senior point Chaz Williams leading the team in scoring (15.8 points per game) and ranking third nationally in assists (7.0 per game). The other guards have different styles on offense: Derrick Gordon (9.3 ppg) prefers to attack the basket, while reserve Trey Davis (9.2 ppg) has nearly half (45) of his 91 field goals from behind the 3-point line. They’re solid with the ball against pressure and, aside from Gordon’s 51.7 percent, the UMass guards make free throws, which could be the difference between winning and losing in the NCAAs.
Requirement No. 2: “I think you need a certain level of size and athleticism, and I think we pass the test there,” Kellogg said.
Senior forward Raphiael Putney combines both: At 6 feet 9 inches, he’s tall enough to play close to the basket and guard similarly sized players on defense, but he’s also comfortable on offense, drawing a defender away from the basket because of his quickness and drive to the basket. Senior forward Sampson Carter, at 6-8, can also shoot from outside (33 for 98 on 3-pointers).
Cady Lalanne, while not as nimble as Putney or Carter, mans the middle at 6-10, and has had a breakout junior season, second on the team in scoring (11.4 ppg), and first in rebounding (8.0) and blocks (70).
The team’s most athletic player might be reserve forward Maxie Esho, who is coming off the best two-game stretch of his career. He had 21 points and seven rebounds, then 15 points and seven rebounds, in UMass’s games last week at the Atlantic 10 tournament, when he combined to go 11 for 17 from the field and 15 for 18 at the line. Kellogg also likes using Esho at the top of the Minutemen press because of how quick, aggressive, and disruptive he can be.
Requirement No. 3: “You have to play well and make shots at the right time,” Kellogg said. “We’ve played well at times and we’ve made shots at times.”
Rarely will teams win an NCAA Tournament game without playing well. An argument can be made that UMass played its best basketball of the season in the first half — since starting 16-1, the Minutemen have gone 8-7 — but making shots is usually not a problem. They’ve managed to shoot at least 40 percent in 25 of their 32 games, and still won four of the seven games in which they didn’t.
Requirement No. 4: “I think one of the most important things that needs to happen to advance in the tournament is you will have had to do that at some point during the year, you’ve had to win two or three games [in a row] at some point before,” Kellogg said. “We have a track record of being able to do it, now we have to put all the sidebars behind us and give it a run.”
In addition to opening 10-0, UMass has had win streaks of five games, three games, and two games. They had one two-game losing streak.
Close games also can be expected in the NCAA Tournament, and UMass has had more than its share. Of the Minutemen’s 32 games, 17 have been decided by 6 points or fewer. In those games, UMass is 13-4.
Like many teams, UMass is breaking the remaining 64-team NCAA Tournament down into smaller, more manageable numbers. The way they see it, they’re competing in a four-team tournament — joining Tennessee, Duke, and Mercer — with the team that wins two games moving into the Sweet 16.
One loss ends the season now, though. Unless they win six games and become national champions, the Minutemen, along with 62 of the 63 other teams in the field, will lose sometime in the next 18 days. They’re hoping to use Kellogg’s keys for winning games in the NCAAs, and even though all but one player — Gordon — has never played in the tournament, they seem to know what they’ll need to advance.
“Confidence, poise, maturity, and a will to win,” said Williams. “There will be a lot of tough, gutsy games, so teams are going to have to pull it out sometimes.
“It’s not going to be as easy as maybe it’s been, but it’s not supposed to be easy in this tournament. It’s going to be hard.”