The last time the University of Massachusetts basketball team made the men’s NCAA Tournament was in 1998, when the Minutemen lost to St. Louis in the first round. How long ago was that? For perspective, superstar freshmen Julius Randle (Kentucky), Jabari Parker (Duke) and Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), who dominated in Tuesday’s Champions Classic in Chicago, were each 3 years old when UMass last was in the Big Dance.
The easiest way to get an NCAA Tournament bid is to win the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament. The Minutemen are listed as 10-1 favorites at Bovada to win the A-10. The last time UMass won it was in the storied 1995-96 season under John Calipari and star Marcus Camby, when the school went to the Final Four (since vacated).
This season could be a great chance for UMass to win the conference with the defections of Butler, Xavier (to the Big East), Temple (American Athletic Conference) and Charlotte (Conference USA). Butler and Temple both finished above UMass in the conference last season and earned at-large NCAA bids. The Minutemen did upset Temple in the A-10 Tournament quarterfinals before losing to Virginia Commonwealth, another NCAA Tournament team. The A-10 added a good program in George Mason and will add another next year in Davidson.
UMass has started the season with wins over BCS conference teams Boston College and LSU. The Minutemen, who host Youngstown State on Sunday, could improve their NCAA Tournament resume with non-conference wins against BYU, Florida State and Providence before opening Atlantic 10 play Jan. 8 against Saint Joseph’s.
In the preseason media poll, UMass was picked to finish fourth in the conference, with senior Chaz Williams a first-team preseason pick and an all-defensive selection. Coach Derek Kellogg brings back three starters, led by Williams, from last season’s 21-12 team that lost to Stony Brook in the opening round of the NIT. Williams, a two-time Atlantic 10 first-team guard, averaged 15.5 points and led the A-10 with 7.3 assists, which was third nationally. He is off to a good start this year, averaging 22.0 points and 6.0 assists.
The other returning starters are senior forward Raphiael Putney and junior center Cady Lalanne. The latter is averaging 22.0 points and 9.0 rebounds through two games. He had a career-high 27 points and 12 boards in the upset of BC. UMass also has Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon. The guard averaged 11.8 points for WKU before sitting out last season. Gordon is off to a solid start, playing the second-most minutes on the team and averaging 7.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals.
The conference betting favorite is VCU at 7-4. Shaka Smart‘s Rams, who play some of the best defense in the country, were also chosen first in the preseason poll. VCU lost to Saint Louis in the A-10 championship game a season ago and fell to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament. The No. 14 Rams already have an impressive win this season, beating No. 25 Virginia 59-56.
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