UMass Climbs College Basketball Rankings, Aims for Deep Postseason Run

Chaz WilliamsNothing comes easy in the Atlantic 10 Conference. The VCU Rams were the consensus preseason pick to run away with the A-10 men’s college basketball title, but now that conference play is underway, it’s obvious it’s going to be a dogfight this year. For the moment, the top dogs are the No. 16 Massachusetts Minutemen at 14-1 straight up and a healthy 9-6 against the spread.

The Minutemen figured to have a puncher’s chance at the A-10 title and a March Madness invitation this season thanks primarily to the return of senior point guard Chaz Williams (15.4 points, 7.5 assists per 40 minutes). However, after UMass upset both New Mexico (-5 favorites) and Clemson (-1) to win the Charleston Classic, bracketologists started talking up UMass as a viable Sweet Sixteen candidate. They’re even at 75-1 to win the NCAA tournament.

The concern with coach Derek Kellogg’s 2013-14 program was the supporting cast around Williams. Those concerns have largely melted away with the improvement of junior center Cady Lalanne (13.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.5 blocks/40), who’s turning into a real two-way beast in the paint. UMass also has enjoyed better results from senior forward Sampson Carter (11.6 points, 4.7 boards/40) in his continued comeback from the hip injury that cost him most of the 2011-12 campaign.

Those upgrades helped UMass perform very well against the college basketball lines when the season started. However, it looks like the well has run dry recently. After initially crushing the odds at 9-1 against the spread, the Minutemen have dropped the cash in each of their last five games, starting with their 60-55 loss to Florida State (-3) at the Orange Bowl Classic. That defeat exposed their one remaining concern: perimeter shooting. UMass went 1-for-15 from downtown in that game.

The advanced statistics also suggest the Minutemen are overrated at No. 16 on the AP poll. Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency numbers have them ranked No. 32 in Division I (No. 60 offense, No. 25 defense), and third in the A-10 behind No. 24 Saint Louis and No. 27 VCU. There’s always the under on UMass, which is 10-5 this year and 5-0 over these past five games.

Next up for UMass is Wednesday’s matchup (7 p.m. ET) at the Patriot Center with the struggling George Mason Patriots, who are living in the A-10 basement at 7-9 straight up and 4-9 against the spread with the under at 7-6. The Minutemen are six-point favorites on the early line. Kellogg has told reporters that Williams is expected to suit up for UMass after suffering a bruised ankle/foot in Saturday’s 73-68 win over the St. Bonaventure (+7.5). Williams left the Mullins Center on crutches and has been sitting out practice while wearing a walking boot, but his X-rays came back negative Monday, and Williams insists these measures are just precautionary.

Photo via Twitter/@d_roback

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