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JOE SULLIVAN | COLLEGE BASKETBALL

UMass basketball is on a learning curve right now

Luwane Pipkins leads UMass with 19.6 points per game.
Luwane Pipkins leads UMass with 19.6 points per game.(j. anthony roberts/AP)

Launching some college basketball thoughts from beyond the arc while waiting eagerly for Southeastern Kentucky State’s first road game (it’s Jan. 8).

Thinking locally

■  UMass may have lost to sixth-ranked Nevada, 110-87, in a tournament final in Las Vegas but the Minutemen impressed Eric Musselman, the Wolfpack’s coach.

“UMass is going to beat a lot of people,’’ he said. “[Luwane Pipkins] can score. Their coach [Matt McCall] is intense. Their bench is as enthusiastic as I have seen.’’

McCall accepts the compliment but he is looking at the bigger picture.

The Minutemen are 4-3, with one really weird loss to Howard at home. On the other end of the spectrum was their opening game in Vegas when they beat Southern Illinois, 84-62. The Salukis are a team that competed well in losses to Kentucky and Buffalo.

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“With eight new guys,nevada I knew it was going to take some time and we were going to go through some adversity early, and we have,’’ said McCall. “I think we have grown and gotten better. That’s the biggest key.

“We are playing better now than we were two weeks ago. We have to continue to have an edge and get better. We didn’t have an edge against Harvard and Howard. We were thinking maybe winning was just going to be easy because we have more bodies. Unfortunately, we had to learn the hard way, but we’ve gotten better.

“As long as we learn and keep learning, the goal is to be playing our best basketball come January, February, and March. The league is wide open. We have to just continue to get better.’’

The next few games will be really interesting, with home contests vs. Quinnipiac and Holy Cross followed by road games at Providence and Temple.

■  Harvard continues to held back by injuries, with star guards Seth Towns and Bryce Aiken still watching games in street clothes. What should have a big season will now be focused on Ivy League play, when Towns and Aiken should be back.

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The Crimson are surviving at 3-3 and just split two games on the West Coast, losing to an undefeated San Francisco team and beating Saint Mary’s. The Saint Mary’s victory came without center Chris Lewis, who suffered a minor injury against San Francisco.

■  Northeastern should be commended for playing a top-notch nonconference schedule. The Huskies had a great victory over Alabama in the Charleston tournament, but losing star guard Vasa Pusica to injury didn’t help in losses to Virginia Tech and Davidson. Plus, starter Shawn Occeus hasn’t played yet because of an ankle injury.

The Huskies have two more tough road games when they travel to Bucknell Wednesday and Syracuse next Tuesday. As far as conference games go, two dates to remember are Thursday, Jan. 17, when Charleston visits Matthews Arena and Saturday, Feb. 2, when Hofstra checks in. Not only will the results be critical to the CAA regular-season race, but these are chances to see two outstanding individuals in Charleston’s Grant Riller and Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman.

Thinking nationally

■  Looks like a few turns on the It’s A Small World ride did Villanova some good, as the Wildcats won the Disney World tournament. They still haven’t solved their 3-point shooting problems, but they won three games by holding opponents to 56, 58, and 60 points. Maybe it’s going to be a grind-it-out type of season.

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■  Gonzaga’s victory over Duke in the Maui Classic final was impressive but also lucky. The Zags missed four consecutive free throws in the final seconds and still survived. Perhaps most impressive is that the Zags won the championship without one of their key players, forward Killian Tillie, who hasn’t played this season because of a stress fracture in his ankle.

Some good thoughts

Here are recent sneaky wins that could benefit teams as the season goes on:

■  Maryland beating Marshall, 104-67. Marshall was averaging 93.5 points per game, and star guard Jon Elmore, averaging 23 ppg, was held to 6.

■  Houston is 4-0 and had a nice win at BYU, 76-62.

■  Bradley (6-1) won the Cancun Challenge, beating Penn State in the final. It was the school’s first in-season tournament title since 1983.

■  UNC Greensboro (6-1) is a low major but bears watching after winning at Delaware, 84-65.

■  North Texas is another low major worth watching. The Mean Green are 8-0, the school’s best start since 1921.

Some bad thoughts

Horrible losses that some teams may never recover from:

■  Wake Forest lost a home game to Houston Baptist.

■  UCLA couldn’t compete with Michigan State, then blew a lead against North Carolina in a two-day downer in Las Vegas.

■  Tom Crean, the former Marquette and Indiana coach, is having a rough start at Georgia, as his team lost to Georgia State.

■  Idaho lost to Northwest Nazarene in its own tournament. Nazarene is a Division 2 school in Nampa, Idaho, which isn’t far from Boise.

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■  One reason UMass might have a better season than projected is that the Atlantic 10 is shaping up as a weak league, one that might be in danger of slipping to one NCAA bid. McCall says it’s wide open, and the results prove it. There’s one bad loss after another; even the teams projected to be near the top have bad losses.

Saint Louis lost to Pitt;

Saint Joseph’s lost to William & Mary;

George Mason lost to American;

Richmond lost to Longwood;

Fordham lost to Houston Baptist;

George Washington blew a 22-point lead in losing to Stony Brook;

Rhode Island also lost to Stony Brook;

LaSalle is 0-7 after finishing last in the Wooden Legacy;

UMass itself lost to Howard.

Forward thinking

■  The ACC-Big Ten Challenge, a made-by-ESPN event, produces some good matchups. The best part is it actually makes some coaches play road games, such as Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, whose team plays at Ohio State Wednesday. The best matchup is probably North Carolina at overachiever Michigan Wednesday. Virginia playing at Maryland Wednesday renews an old ACC rivalry.

Because of an increase in conference games, there is some conference play occurring before January. We get Wisconsin at Iowa Friday and Purdue at Michigan Saturday.

■  Duquesne rarely wins its intra-city game with Pitt, but the Dukes are much improved under Keith Dambrot, so they have a great chance in the game Friday night at the Penguins’ New Igloo.

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■  Maybe the Atlantic 10 can get some cred back if Dayton beats Mississippi State Friday night.

There are three good nonconference games Saturday:

■  Gonzaga at Creighton. The Zags can’t have any hangover from Maui in Omaha.

■  Kansas State at Marquette. The Wildcats are undefeated and will attempt to slow down the Fightin’ Maguires and force them off the 3-point line.

■  Nevada at Southern Cal. The Wolfpack have had trouble finding teams willing to play them; the Trojans were willing, but only in Los Angeles.

■  UConn has a chance for a big victory when it hosts Arizona Sunday. Notably, the game will be played in Storrs when in past years it would have been in Hartford.

■  Central Florida needs a big road victory and has a chance Sunday at Missouri. I think the Knights will get it.

■  Loyola Marymount is 7-0, the best start in school history, and has a date at UCLA Sunday. What a win that would be. I don’t think it will happen.


Joe Sullivan can be reached at jtsullivan@globe.com.