Stop me if you've heard this one before -- UMass is set to take on a team coming off a huge upset non-conference win over a ranked opponent. Sound familiar? While the script and players have changed from the last time UMass was in this position (Davidson coming off a win over Kansas), the story remains the same as the Fordham Rams head into Amherst tomorrow night coming off a surprising upset victory over the #22 ranked Harvard Crimson.
Fordham was predicted to finish dead last in the A-10 in most pre-season polls (the same polls that picked the Minutemen to finish 12th) but they are white hot right now coming off home victories over Georgia Tech and Harvard. There seem to be two points of view on Thursday night's contest, there are those who will say that we couldn't possibly be seeing Fordham at a worse time, statistically they aren't that imposing but they're on a roll right now and you'd hate to see a team that you should beat when their confidence is through the roof. On the other hand, with home wins over Georgia Tech and Harvard, and a home game against Xavier on Saturday this Thursday night is the precise definition of a "trap" game for the Rams.
Plus if you're looking for an additional storyline how does this suit you -- Chaz Williams, the dynamic point guard that has really helped this UMass team surprise some people in the early going was recruited to play for Hofstra by the current Fordham head coach Tom Pecora. Not to mention that many of the Fordham players are likely very familiar to Chaz, being New York prospects of roughly the same age. Oh and by the way, Fordham is coming off a season where they won a total of 1 games, and that game happened to be against....well needless to say motivation shouldn't be a huge problem Thursday night. There will be a lot at play at the Bill on Thursday night in the opening tip for the A-10 schedule.Key to the Game:
You Gotta Run! In my best Tommy Heinsohn voice I am begging the UMass offense to dictate the pace of this game, and for the defense to press, press, press and turn this thing into a track meet. Fordham's starting five all play over 23 minutes per game, with their top three contributors all averaging over 31 minutes per game. The amount of contribution that Fordham gets from the bench is a drastic drop off from the starting five, and much like CCSU if UMass can get Fordham to press the gas pedal in the first half, by the second half things should start to wear down for a weary team coming off two hugely emotional games with a big match up against Xavier on the horizon. Chaz is going to have to push the pace of the game, and that means running off misses and makes -- put Fordham in a position to have to play a fast paced type of game. One thing about Fordham is that they shoot a lot of 3 pointers for a team that shoots poorly from beyond the arc, they're shooting 26% from three, which could mean long rebounds and opportunities to break -- watch for guys like Freddie Riley, and Raphiael Putney leaking out on the defensive end and scoring some easy baskets off long misses. There should also be opportunities for the ball hawking UMass defense to create turnovers, Fordham only has one player with a positive assist to turnover ratio, and 11 guys with more turnovers than assists -- it could be a good game for easy buckets off the press.Second Key to the Game:
Home Cooking. Fordham stinks on the road, period. They're 6-1 at Rose Hill and 1-5 away from their home court. Of those 5 road losses, Fordham has dropped games to Loyalo Chicago, Manhattan, Monmouth. On the flip side of that coin, UMass has yet to lose a game at the Mullins Center and hopefully with the 11-3 OOC record, and an A10 opponent coming off a big win over Harvard the student section turns out with some energy on Thursday night and UMass can protect their home court.Spotlight:
Sean Carter. With Cady Lalanne sidelined with an undisclosed ankle/foot injury, Sean Carter is going to be called upon to defend almost exclusively Chris Gaston who is one of the better big men that UMass has left on the schedule. Gaston leads the Rams in points (16.8 PPG), Rebounds (11.2 RPG) and field goal attempts (193). I'm past the point where I think Carter is capable of shutting someone down, but what I'm worried about is foul trouble. With Cady on the shelf, the front court is very thing (literally and figuratively) and Maxie Esho and/or Raphiael Putney are not going to guard Gaston in the post. Granted with Esho and/or Putney on the floor in place of Carter it should cause Gaston to have to be pulled away from the basket, but if Carter can just minimize the effect that Gaston has on this game I think it'll be huge. Running early and often will help, there is nobody on the Fordham bench capable of replicating Gaston which means -- if you can tire Gaston out, you take the best weapon Fordham has out of their hands.Key Match Up:
Chaz Williams/Brenden Frazier. While I think Carter/Gaston is a major focal point for this game, I'm beyond the point where I think any player can impact the flow of a UMass game more than Chaz Williams. Frazier is the only Ram with a turnover to assist ratio on the positive side of the equation, and he's averaging 10.7 PPG, including a 22 point outburst against Harvard last night. However it goes without saying that as Chaz goes, so go the Minutemen. In a game that you should anticipate having a number of fast breaks, a number of opportunities for steals and some good pressure in the full court -- Chaz Williams will be a major contributor. Hopefully Chaz doesn't get too focused on showing up and showing off for his old coach and plays within the system but if Chaz can continue to control the game as he has done recently, I think you'll see good things out of the team on Thursday night.Prediction:
As nervous as I am about some of the match ups in this game -- I actually have a pretty good feeling about it. The NCAA is littered with teams that excel at home and struggle on the road and I have a feeling that's what you're looking at with Fordham (hell that may be what you're looking at with UMass as well). I think the game will be very close up until halftime with UMass using what has become a trait of theirs, the opening of the second half run to create some distance and they won't look back. I'm predicting 75-65 and a 1-0 start to the A10 season for the Minutemen.