The release of the college basketball schedule at the end of summer is one of the most exciting events all year for followers of the sport. Players, fans and media invariably focus on a select few games, circling them on the calendar to highlight their significance.
College basketball teams can make or break their season based on how they perform in their five or six biggest games. They are afforded only so many opportunities to impress the selection committee, and it is imperative to make the most of those opportunities.
Unfortunately, the 2012-13 UMass Minutemen whiffed on each of their best chances to pick up a signature win. They lost at VCU and Saint Louis, not to mention at home against Temple, Butler and Miami. Winning any two of those games would have gone a long way towards helping UMass slip into the tournament.
Thanks to strong scheduling by the athletic department, the 2013-14 Minutemen will have a handful of opportunities to show the college basketball world what they are capable of accomplishing. Without further ado, here are UMass’ five biggest games of 2013-14.
5. Florida State (Saturday, December 21; Orange Bowl Classic, Sunrise, Fla.)
The Orange Bowl Classic will serve as one of UMass’ two or three best opportunities in the non-conference slate to pick up a meaningful win that will resonate throughout the course of the year. The Seminoles lost their best player, guard Michael Snaer, but return senior forward Okaro White (12.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG last year), along with fellow seniors Ian Miller, Kiel Turpin and Robert Gilchrist.
Florida State missed out on the NCAA tournament in 2013, but made it to the dance the previous four consecutive seasons, from 2009-2012. With an experienced, senior-heavy group, the 2013-14 Seminoles should have a chance to finish in the top half of the ACC standings and make it to the tournament for the fifth time in six years.
4. Boston College (Sunday, November 11; Coaches vs. Cancer Boston Tip-Off, Boston, Mass.)
UMass will open the season against in-state rival BC at the TD Garden in Boston as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Boston Tip-Off, a tripleheader of games also featuring Harvard, Boston University, Northeastern and Holy Cross.
UMass will have to employ a focused team effort on defense to limit star BC guard Olivier Hanlan, who averaged over 15 points per game his first year in Chestnut Hill. The ACC Freshman of the Year has the ability to explode on any given night, as he displayed in the ACC tournament against Georgia Tech for 41 points, including 8-of-10 from long range.
The Eagles also return junior Ryan Anderson, their second leading scorer (14.9 PPG) and leading rebounder (8.0 RPG) from a year ago. Winning this game would help UMass establish itself as the top college basketball program in the state while also giving the Minutemen a win against a solid ACC squad.
3. Nebraska (Thursday, November 21; Charleston Classic, Charleston, S.C.)
This game is significant for the Minutemen not because of who they are playing, but because of who they will likely play if they get past the Cornhuskers.
New Mexico, a team that has made two straight NCAA tournament appearances as a fifth seed or better, and which will enter the 2013-14 season as a likely Top 25 squad, will be waiting in Round 2 of the Charleston Classic if the Lobos can take care of UAB. This would set up a huge early season opportunity for UMass to prove that it can play with and even beat top-tier teams.
2. Saint Louis (Sunday, March 9; Mullins Center)
UMass will host last season’s Atlantic 10 Tournament champion in the 2013-14 regular season finale with a chance to make a huge splash right before postseason play begins. Saint Louis will be looking to earn its third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, and they should have no problem attaining that goal.
Dwayne Evans, Rob Loe and Jordair Jett will all be back for the Billikens, and UMass will have its hands full on senior day. Emotions will be running high for Chaz Williams' last regular-season appearance in Amherst and it will be up to UMass to rise to the occasion and pick up a signature win.
1. VCU (Friday, February 21; Mullins Center)
Revenge will be on the mind of UMass players and fans alike when VCU pays a visit to the Mullins Center in late February. The Rams defeated the Minutemen twice last year, and in the process slammed the door on any chance UMass had of reaching the NCAA tournament.
The two teams first met on Valentine's Day in Richmond, when UMass led by five at halftime before getting thoroughly dismantled by VCU's Havoc press in the second half.
VCU and UMass met for a second time in the semifinals of the A-10 Tournament, where again UMass was able to keep up with the Rams for the majority of the game. The Minutemen were down only two points with under five minutes to play before VCU pulled away.
The Rams return forward Juvonte Reddic and guard Rob Brandenberg, the final holdovers from the VCU squad that shocked the college basketball world with their improbable run to the 2011 Final Four, as well as Briante Weber and Treveon Graham. VCU will be the class of the A-10 in 2013-14, and if UMass can overcome Shaka Smart’s devastating press, the Minutemen will be sitting pretty come selection Sunday.
Honorable Mention: vs. LSU; vs. La Salle
The LSU Tigers return four double-digit scorers, while the La Salle Explorers are fresh off a season in which they made a surprise run to the Sweet 16. Both of these wins would look excellent on UMass' resume come Selection Sunday.