UMass basketball: Winning back-to-back Atlantic 10 games the goal as Minutemen welcome Saint Joseph’s

UMass’ Rahsool Diggins scored a career-high 25 points against George Washington on Saturday, and the Minutemen hope to continue that momentum when Saint Joseph’s comes to the Mullins Center on Tuesday.

UMass’ Rahsool Diggins scored a career-high 25 points against George Washington on Saturday, and the Minutemen hope to continue that momentum when Saint Joseph’s comes to the Mullins Center on Tuesday. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

UMass’ Jaylen Curry goes to the basket against George Washington on Saturday.

UMass’ Jaylen Curry goes to the basket against George Washington on Saturday. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS


Staff Writer

Published: 01-22-2024 7:05 PM

AMHERST — There was already a built-in excuse for the UMass men’s basketball team ahead of its game with George Washington on Saturday. The Minutemen were down their best player, Matt Cross, for a third straight game after losing the previous two. Nobody would’ve been shocked if the 14-3 Revolutionaries walked into Amherst and beat shorthanded UMass – especially after the devastating loss in the final seconds to Loyola Chicago earlier in the week.

Apparently this young Minutemen team didn’t get that memo, and they played their best half of basketball in the second half to coast to a 14-point win and improve to 3-0 in Atlantic 10 Conference home games.

“We’re taking this one day at a time, and that’s why I was so proud of the guys the other day,” UMass head coach Frank Martin said on Monday. “After that heartbreaking loss at Loyola, we came back and played, I thought, fairly well against a pretty darn good George Washington team. The approach is settling in our heads. We just have to make sure we stay humble – that it’s all about the next game.”

That next game comes against streaking Saint Joseph’s (12-6, 2-3) on Tuesday night, and that next game is one in which Cross is going to play. He got through a full practice on Monday, and Martin said during his presser that his senior captain was good to go.

Cross’ ankle is healed, and has been for a couple of days now – that wasn’t the issue. He recently had oral surgery on the tooth that he chipped against Dayton back on Jan. 7, and a metal plate was put into the surrounding area of the jaw bone. Martin, Cross and the training staff were worried he might get hit up high again, which could set him back even further. But after a solid practice session Monday, he got the approval to suit up Tuesday.

“He should be good to go, to what extent and all that, we’ll figure that out,” Martin said of Cross. “[Monday] was just making sure that he can get through a practice. His ankle has been healed, that’s not been the issue. He had major oral surgery… It takes a little bit to get back out there where you might catch an elbow or whatever. But he got through practice, he’s pain free, and he should be good to go.”

UMass (12-6, 3-3) is seeking consecutive conference wins for the first time this season, and it’ll be with its full arsenal of weapons and – depending on how many minutes Cross plays – its normal rotation intact. Across the Atlantic 10 outside of a few teams this season, back-to-back victories have been extremely hard to come by. Some teams have done it, but for the most part, the A-10 has once again beaten up on each other.

“Outside of a couple teams in the league, there aren’t too many people winning two games in a row,” Martin said. “The league is really hard. It’s got old guards, and old guards that are really good, so the league is really difficult. With that said, it gives us a consistency with how we have to approach every single game. We can’t overreact to a good day or a bad day.”

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If the Minutemen are to do it, they have to get by a pair of Saint Joseph’s old guards – Erik Reynolds II and Lynn Greer III. The Hawks lost three straight games by a combined 10 points to open league play, and have since won their last two over La Salle and Duquesne. Reynolds II and Greer III are the main reasons why.

Reynolds III is averaging 17 points per game on 40-40-90 shooting splits and Greer III averages 12 points and four assists a night. They are just two of five Saint Joseph’s players who average double digits (Xzayvier Brown, Rasheer Fleming, Cameron Brown), with another (Christ Essandoko) putting up eight points and six rebounds. Saint Joe’s truly does it by committee.

Essandoko, who sits on several experts’ NBA draft boards, starts at center for the Hawks. He missed the entire month of December except for one game. Now, he’s back healthy and manning the middle. The UMass frontcourt is going to have its hands full. Furthermore, the backcourt of Reynolds II, Greer III, and Cam Brown have been together for several years – something quite rare to see in today’s era of college basketball.

“It’s gonna be a hard matchup,” Martin said. “They’ve got two high-level and proven guards in Lynn Greer and Erik Reynolds. Then they complement them with [Cameron and Xzayvier Brown]. Their starting four man (Fleming), he’s pretty darn good. Then you go to their center (Essandoko), he’s on NBA draft boards. They’ve got a really talented team, and what makes it really hard is their guards are really old.”

Keon Thompson did a fantastic job shutting down George Washington star James Bishop IV (eight points and five turnovers on 2-for-14 shooting), and he’s likely to have his hands full with Reynolds II on Tuesday.

“Keon’s attention to detail, his willingness,” Martin said of what makes him such a great on-ball defender. “Keon’s engaged. He understands they’re gonna get him once in awhile. It’s OK. He’s grown up a lot there. I thought Keon probably played his most complete game for us as a player when we played GW.”

Tip-off for Tuesday’s game against Saint Joseph’s at the Mullins Center is scheduled for 7 p.m.