AMHERST, Mass. – With two good wins under their belt to start the season, UMass certainly didn’t need to nullify either of them with a bad loss. While they were never in real danger on Sunday, the Minutemen allowed Youngstown State to hang around long enough to make a few of the Mullins Center faithful sweat a little before pulling away 85-69.
By pulling away late, the story certainly changes from a slippage of momentum to how the team has shown some maturity in their first three games. Certainly, the Minutemen could be playing better, but the bottom line has Derek Kellogg happy while still looking for more out of this team.
“I like that we’re 3-0,” said the UMass mentor. “I like that, I really like that we’re 3-0.”
UMass came into Sunday having started off with two wins that could have shelf life later in the season. Boston College projects to be at least a borderline NCAA Tournament team, although the Eagles’ 0-3 start heading into their game on Sunday night might make the value of that win debatable. LSU should be in the mix right after the top teams in the SEC. While Kellogg has said he would prefer to ease into the season, those were two games he couldn’t pass up – a game in the Boston Garden as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Tip-Off and a home game against a power conference team on television.
What the Minutemen have done thus far is give every indication that they will contend in the Atlantic 10. Chaz Williams continues to play like a Player of the Year candidate, Cady Lalanne continues to be a difference-maker inside, and Sampson Carter is proving to be a tough matchup and complement. In addition, Derrick Gordon is showing that he is simply a winning player, one whose numbers will always understate what he means to a team, and Raphiael Putney is getting and taking better shots instead of settling for the ones he used to.
Williams, in particular, is in the starring role that many expected. Besides leading the team in scoring, he has 24 assists against ten turnovers in the first three games. More importantly, he’s taken his floor leadership to a higher level, and it’s reflected in what others are doing. On Sunday, he was joined by three other players in double figures in scoring, and the Minutemen aren’t hoisting up three-pointers with nearly the frequency they have in years past. They’re working the ball inside more and driving more. Lalanne noted that Williams is always talking to him throughout the game. The change in play is not all on account of Williams, but he is the starting point for it.
“He’s a fast point guard, small point guard, and can get into the paint a lot more,” said Putney, who scored 17 points on 7-11 shooting on the afternoon. “He’s able to create shots for me and Cady as well, so that takes a lot of pressure off myself trying to score the ball.”
Sunday’s game also goes down as a tune-up for the Charleston Classic, where they open with Nebraska and could face the favorite, New Mexico, with a win. They still have other opportunities in non-conference as they host Brigham Young in Springfield, travel to Florida State for the Orange Bowl Basketball Classic and host Providence.
Kellogg certainly had some things he wasn’t happy with on Sunday. Their 19 turnovers was one of them, as he would like to see that cut down to 12-13. He also felt like they let Youngstown State hang around a little too long before they finally put the Penguins away.
“I thought we could have stepped on it a little earlier,” said Kellogg. “At different times of the game, we let them come back. We still have a ways to go, but I would say we’re more mature than we might have been last year and the year before, where you’re up eight and all of a sudden you’re down one, and step on the gas.”
UMass has started off well with their first three games, getting two big wins and pulling one out on Sunday. They will go into Charleston with the early momentum intact, hopeful of making their early wins mean something later on. They also go there with room for improvement, while having shown they can get better thus far.