UMass basketball: Minutemen to meet VCU, first Atlantic 10 semifinal berth since 2013

UMass men’s basketball coach Frank Martin has the Minutemen on the verge of their first Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament semifinal since 2013 when they play VCU in the quarters on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

UMass men’s basketball coach Frank Martin has the Minutemen on the verge of their first Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament semifinal since 2013 when they play VCU in the quarters on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-13-2024 4:20 PM

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — During UMass men’s basketball head coach Frank Martin’s press conference on Tuesday morning, he consistently referenced one word that was vital for his team over the past week: rest.

It’ll be eight days between when the Minutemen played in their regular season finale last Wednesday against Fordham and their Atlantic 10 quarterfinal matchup with VCU on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn (2 p.m. tip, USA Network). They haven’t had this many days off between two games since a non-conference stretch from Nov. 22 to Dec. 2 – a 10-day span that Martin said was way too long.

He feels much different now that the time off comes before a period in which the Minutemen could play three times in four days.

“During the regular season, I don’t like it because it gets you out of your routine,” Martin said. “Right now, I like it because it allowed everybody to quiet down their bodies and their minds. We create an unbelievable pressure among ourselves every day to do our jobs as well as we can – player to player, coach to coach. To be able to hit the reset button, at this time of year, was extremely helpful. Our practices the last two days have been tremendous.”

UMass prides itself on playing bully ball. And for a team that plays as hard and physical as the Minutemen, rest is essential. Having a week off at this point in the year for UMass to get healthy and shift its focus to postseason play is exactly the advantage it earned when it snagged the fourth double bye. Both Keon Thompson (ankle), and Robert Davis Jr. (concussion), missed the Fordham game.

“For us to be good, we’re a hard-working, connected, physical, gotta play every play [type of team],” Martin said. “That’s what makes these guys good individually and makes us good collectively – and there’s no shame in that. But when you play that way, it beats your body up. And the fact that we’re in all these one-possession games coming down to the last two minutes, it creates mental stress. Being able to disengage for a minute and get away from that physicality and that mental stress, I think that’s healthy.”

Martin did say Thompson was a full participant in practice on Monday and Tuesday, and actually seems to be playing even better than before.

The sophomore point guard is another beneficiary of some time off.

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“He’s been through [Monday and Tuesday] practices full-go, nothing lingering,” Martin said. “He actually practiced really, really [well]. Like most guys, when you get a couple days off towards the end of the year, when they get to practice again, they’re in a different speed. That little bit of extra rest really helps, especially late in the year. I’m really happy to have Keon back out there.”

Following its tight 69-62 win over Fordham in the second round on Wednesday, No. 5 VCU is the Minutemen’s quarterfinal opponent. The Rams gifted UMass a double bye by losing to Duquesne and Dayton to end the season, and now they get to battle for a spot in Saturday’s semifinals. The Minutemen have struggled in the quarterfinal round over the past decade, and haven’t reached the semifinals of the A-10 tournament since 2013 when they beat Temple in the quarters before losing to VCU.

VCU’s win over Fordham was tight throughout, as it featured 11 ties and 11 lead changes. VCU benefited from a healthy free throw discrepancy, as the club went 27-for-39 from the free throw line. Atlantic 10 First-Team selection Max Shulga led the way with 14 points and seven rebounds.

UMass won the regular season meeting 74-52 back on Feb. 20 at the Mullins Center.

“It’s doesn’t really matter who it is at this point in the year,” VCU coach Ryan Odom said following Wednesday’s win. “They cracked us in Amherst, now we get another shot at them in Brooklyn.”

Even though UMass beat the Rams by 22 earlier in the year and have an extra day of rest, Martin has been coaching long enough to understand that nobody truly gets tired at this point in the season.

“Now we know what we signed up for, and this is the week,” Martin said. “We’ve done a lot of good in the regular season to put ourselves in a place to take advantage of a double bye. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy, it doesn’t mean that’s a given now… All that’s irrelevant. The biggest [misconception] that exists is that you play three games in four days or four in five or whatever, and the team gets tired. You don’t get tired. Once you lose, your season’s over. People don’t get tired at this time of year.”

Over the last two games, the Minutemen have struggled to shoot from the field. UMass shot 42 percent against Fordham and 35 percent against Davidson (20 percent from 3), but earned a victory in both contests.

In order for UMass to make a deep run into the weekend in Brooklyn, it’ll have to shoot better outside of 10 feet. That starts with generating clean, open and in-rhythm looks for their perimeter jump-shooters – which means crisp ball movement from the five guys on the floor.

“We gotta be able to make some shots,” Martin said. “In games where we’ve made jump shots, nine times out of 10 we’ve won. Games we don’t make jump shots, it gets really hard. Our perimeter shooting has to be good. I think our ball movement got a little stagnant late in the year, I don’t think we moved the ball as well as we did earlier in the year. Last couple days in practice, we’ve emphasized that, and I think the guys have done a better job.”

Sure, seeing three Minutemen wins and the team cut down the nets on Selection Sunday is the ultimate goal, but this season has been a success regardless. Twenty wins for the first time in 10 years, the highest seeding in the conference tournament since 2008 and a handful of Atlantic 10 awards is a massive step in the right direction of rebuilding the program.

Martin has enjoyed the last five-plus months with this group.

“If you win three games, it’s gonna be an unbelievable moment for everyone in that locker room,” he began. “And if we don’t win three games, that moment after the game is gonna be frustrating and difficult – because it’s a team that has enjoyed competing and playing with each other. [They have] taken on the [challenge] to believe that we can be a good team and rebuild this place, and when you’re around people like that you don’t ever want it to end.”