Turning Point For UMass: Strong Start a Fluke or Are They Contenders?

Matt StewartContributor IDecember 10, 2010

AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts basketball team started 7-0, with the help of senior guard Anthony Gurley and contributions from the sophomore class, but perhaps their record wasn’t indicative of how good the team really is.

The Minutemen have since dropped their last two contests. They'll face a pivotal point in their non-conference schedule with back-to-back quality opponents coming to Amherst in the coming weeks, where they'll have the chance to prove how serious a threat they are as the conference season approaches.

The biggest question surrounding the team coming into the season was who would replace graduating senior Ricky Harris and his 19.8 points per game. That question was answered quickly when Gurley dropped a career-high 31 points, and sharp-shooting sixth man Freddie Riley added a career-high 28, to overcome a 21-point first-half deficit and secure the victory over Rider in the season opener at the Mullins Center.

Gurley has since led the team in points in eight of their nine games, with an average of 20.3 points per game. Riley (11.2 ppg) and the other sophomores from last season’s highly touted recruiting class—Javorn Farrell (10.9 ppg) and starting small forward Sampson Carter (10.3 ppg)—have made major contributions.

The only player not to live up to expectations from the class has been sophomore starting power forward and former Top 100 recruit Terrell Vinson, who hasn’t yet proven his ability to rack up big points (5.3 ppg) and is tied for fifth on the team in rebounding average (3.2).

The 7-0 start may have been deceiving, since the Minutemen played a favorable schedule and won in less-than-convincing fashion. UMass played four of those games in Amherst, where they have performed significantly better than on the road over the past couple of years. Two were 35 minutes away in Springfield, and only one was on the road against Quinnipiac.

Furthermore, the schedule has lacked any of the marquee matchups against perennial powers that Seasons One and Two of the Kellogg era had (Kansas and Memphis).

A “w” is a “w,” but some of them weren’t so pretty, including facing a 22-point hole against Rider (6-4) in the second half, having a 24-point lead with 8:21 remaining against Holy Cross (0-7) turn into a four-point lead with 31 seconds left and letting a 17-point halftime lead against Quinnipiac (6-2) come down to a game-winning shot at the buzzer to make their record 7-0.

Then UMass was brought back down to earth, dropping a hard-fought contest to a quality Boston College team last Saturday and having a letdown against the University of Maine on Wednesday. BC never trailed, but UMass played well, cutting the deficit to three with 1:12 left but couldn’t convert key stops as the Eagles prevailed. The Maine game featured an offensive collapse in the second half in which the Minutemen only shot 22.9 percent from the floor.

The next two games will be a turning point in the season. UMass welcomes a rebuilding Seton Hall (3-4) to the Mullins Center on Saturday. The Pirates will be a good test, since they lost to Xavier, 57-52, and Temple, 62-56, both of which are perennial Atlantic 10 contenders. This game should give the Minutemen an idea of where they stand in the conference.

Then, on Dec. 22, UMass hosts the University of Central Florida (7-0), who recently knocked off a ranked University of Florida team. The Knights may be the toughest opponent yet for UMass, and the Minutemen will have their hands full trying to stop leading scorer Marcus Jordan (MJ’s son) and power forward Keith Clanton. UMass lost to both teams last season.

Realistically, UMass could be in the midst of a four-game losing streak going into the Boston University game on Dec. 31 but if they can turn it around, play a full 40 minutes of basketball and somehow find a way to win the next two games against quality opponents, they may be able to claim they are one of the better teams in the A10 going into conference play.