Seeing Maroon: Will the real UMass please stand up?

Published: 2/22/2021 6:59:47 PM

Sports teams at UMass returned to practice Saturday after a two-week pause, and we’ll find out quickly just how much of an impact the midseason halt had on their performance going forward.

Believe it or not, the Minutemen men’s basketball team comes out of the pause with the highest winning percentage in the Atlantic 10 conference, holding a 6-2 conference record this season.

That’s a little misleading, as St. Bonaventure and VCU have each played 12 games each in the A-10. Both squads are currently 9-3 in conference play. Due to multiple COVID pauses, the Minutemen have also played just 11 total games this season, the lowest number among A-10 teams.

None of the team’s six conference wins have come against schools with a winning record. UMass beat an 8-14 La Salle team twice, and also handled perennial A-10 doormat Fordham two times. The Minutemen’s best wins of the season both came against URI, which by its standards has had a down year at just 10-13 overall and 7-9 in the A-10. Both of the Minutemen’s losses came against middle of the pack conference teams in George Mason and Davidson.

So what should the expectations be going forward with this UMass team, one that sits atop the A-10 standings but hasn’t had the opportunity yet to show it can play with the toughest the conference has to offer? It’s tough to judge just where this young Minutemen is due to all the starts and stops due to COVID. This is a team that struggled in non-conference play but was just finding its rhythm and had its best win of the season against Rhode Island on the road before this latest shutdown.

With the way things are currently scheduled, we’ll get some answers soon. UMass has two games left on its regular season slate, a tilt with Richmond on Tuesday at 6 p.m. before traveling to Saint Louis to take on the Billikens next Monday.

The Spiders are 12-5 this season and 5-3 in the conference. They have one of the best records in the A-10 due to a talented, veteran roster. Saint Louis, on the other hand, might have the most pure talent of any team in the conference, though they have actually played fewer A-10 games than the Minutemen have.

Two games that aren’t exactly the easiest of opponents to play after a two-week hiatus — it’d be nice if they could have snuck another game with Fordham in there to get their feet wet before playing the good teams, but alas. What we’ve learned more than anything is there’s no controlling this crazy, ever-changing season.

Now the question becomes which UMass teams comes out of this break. Is it the same team that beat URI on the road without its two top players, or the team that struggled out of the gates after being quarantined just as the season was about to start? I lean toward the former, as I’m guessing it’s easier to have to get going once you’ve already started than figure things out on the fly without much of an offseason.

Tre Mitchell and Noah Fernandes should be healthy as well going forward, a huge boost to the lineup. During Monday’s media availability, UMass coach Matt McCall said both were expected to play against Richmond.

Much like the basketball team, the Minutemen hockey team comes out of the break with a tough opponent, taking on No. 15 Providence on the road Tuesday.

UMass and the Friars squared off in a weekend series a month ago, with the two teams tying 0-0 in the first matchup and then tying 1-1 a day later. Simply put, there isn’t too much separating these two squads.

The Minutewomen basketball team closes out its regular season with games against VCU and Richmond, two teams currently in the top half of the conference standings. The schedule may be adjusted to add one more opponent before the A-10 tournament, however.

After the Minutemen hockey team went 11 days between games in January, resulting in back-to-back losses with Boston University after the return, UMass coach Greg Carvel talked about how he felt his team might have lost their edge with the time off. It’s a cause for concern coming back from this break for all teams, as two weeks without practice during the middle of the season is simply unprecedented, and there’s no way to predict how a team will play coming off the break.

Does UMass come out flying, looking refreshed and rejuvenated? That’s certainly one possibility. Or does the team look slow, finding it hard to get back into a rhythm? It’s truly different for every team, as no two situations are the same.

If I were a genie, I would tell you, but unfortunately I’m simply a journalist without a crystal ball so we’ll all just have to watch and see what happens. No matter what, it’s an important week for all three teams with conference tournaments looming on the horizon.

Thomas Johnston is a Recorder sports reporter and UMass alum. He can be reached at tjohnston@recorder.com



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