UMass basketball: Red-hot VCU comes to Mullins Center on Tuesday

Jaylen Curry (2) and the UMass men’s basketball team welcome VCU to the Mullins Center for a huge Atlantic 10 game on Tuesday.

Jaylen Curry (2) and the UMass men’s basketball team welcome VCU to the Mullins Center for a huge Atlantic 10 game on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 02-19-2024 5:40 PM

AMHERST — The saying all season long for the UMass men’s basketball team is a simple one: Don’t let the highs be too high, and don’t let the lows be too low.

After a disappointing loss to then last-place La Salle over the weekend, the Minutemen are following that motto more than ever as they prepare for a colossal clash with VCU on Tuesday night. Despite the letdown, they indeed aren’t letting a bad loss knock them down – and they’ve responded with two terrific practice sessions, according to head coach Frank Martin.

“They’ve been great the last two days,” Martin said. “They were good [Sunday] and they were off the charts [Monday].”

In the game against the Explorers on Saturday, UMass trailed 51-41 at halftime and fought back from down as many as 18 points in the second half. The Minutemen had several chances down the stretch to tie or take the lead, but too many empty trips on the offensive end and the big deficit was too much to overcome.

But just as Martin said, Rahsool Diggins echoed that UMass is ready for the Rams on Tuesday night, as it returns home for the first time in nine days.

“It was tough losing at La Salle, but I think we’ve come in with a better approach; getting our identity back,” Diggins said. “We came out the La Salle game a little bit sluggish, not ready to compete. But I think we’ve had a good two days of competing at practice, and we’re ready to go for [Tuesday].”

VCU (17-8) comes into the game having won four consecutive games and nine of its last 10, including a huge two-point win over No. 18 Dayton last week. Martin said he believes there is no Atlantic 10 team playing as well as the Rams are right now. At 9-3 in the league, VCU sits just one game out of third place in the league

For UMass (16-9, 7-6 A-10), a win would put it just a game and a half behind the Rams for fourth place. And not to look too far ahead, but a win on Saturday at St. Bonaventure would help the Minutemen’s chances of locking up a top five seed.

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The Minutemen are expecting a postseason type of energy on the court on Tuesday.

“It’s going to be a physical game, obviously VCU is a very physical team as well,” Thompson said. “It’s really gonna come down to executing and having the least amount of mistakes as possible. Obviously when you go into tough games like this, there are going to be mistakes. But as long as we keep them to a minimum, I feel like we’ll have a good chance.”

Ryan Odom is in his first season as head coach of the Rams after coming over from Utah State, and he made sure to bring some of his own luggage with him. Three players followed Odom to VCU, including Max Shulga and Sean Bairstow. Shulga leads the Rams in both points (15 per game) and assists (3.7 per game) while Bairstow averages 11 points, 5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per contest.

Of the six leading scorers for VCU, five are seniors. Like seemingly the rest of the teams in the Atlantic 10 – with the exception of UMass – the Rams are old and experienced.

“I’ve quickly realized that I think I’m the only guy who thought about recruiting freshmen in this league,” Martin joked. “Every team we play is nothing but fifth-year seniors, and [VCU is] no different. Shulga, Bairstow, they know what Ryan wants, so that’s how their team plays. They got Zeb Jackson who’s an experienced player, they got [Jason] Nelson who was the starting point guard at Richmond last year, [Joe] Bamisile who’s been in college for a minute and is a proven college scorer… their team has continued to get better.”

There is certainly no guarantee UMass is going to come away victorious on Tuesday, but if it can put together a full 40 minutes of basketball, the Minutemen have a great chance to improve to 12-2 at home.

Although the letdown against La Salle wasn’t the result he – nor the players – wanted, Martin wasn’t all that upset given the Herculean effort shown in the second half. In his mind, there are four possible outcomes of a basketball game, and considering the way UMass responded to the loss the next two days, the Minutemen are in position for the best one.

“Some times you play well and lose, some times you play bad and win, some times you play bad and lose, and some times you play well and win,” Martin said. “Those are your only four options. We played bad and lost our last game out. We tried in the second half, which, I wasn’t really happy after the game, but once I got the emotion of losing out of the way I realized the habits that these guys have fought to build came to light in adversity. We didn’t let go of the rope, we didn’t blame, we didn’t hang our heads. We went out there and figured out a way to play better and more to who we are… It wasn’t good enough, but we came out [Monday] and practiced like a team that knows it played out of character.”

Tip-off is at 7 p.m. on CBS Sports Network, and UMass has opened as slight 1½-point favorites.