Massachusetts has climbed to its first top 20 ranking in nearly 16 years, but that could be in jeopardy without cleaning things up as Atlantic 10 play begins.
The 19th-ranked Minutemen host Saint Joseph's on Wednesday night in both teams' conference opener.They've been arguably the Atlantic 10's most impressive club thus far with their best start since opening 26-0 in 1995-96. However, UMass (12-1) looked vulnerable in its non-conference finale, taking a 73-65 home win over Miami of Ohio on Saturday.The win was enough to vault the Minutemen into the top 20 for the first time since Feb. 24, 1998, but left coach Derek Kellogg less than satisfied."We didn't play with energy across the board," he said. "We'll have to play better in the conference."UMass allowed its second-highest field-goal percentage of the season (48.4) and committed 16 turnovers. Maybe more concerning was the 34-27 rebounding edge Kellogg's club surrendered after claiming an advantage on the glass in nine of its first 12 games. The 27 rebounds were a season low."To get outrebounded by anybody is not a good thing at this point," Kellogg said. "Our bigs are supposed to be our strength."Chaz Williams appeared to break out of his mini-slump, finishing with 18 points and eight assists after averaging 10.8 points on 31.1 percent shooting over his previous four games. The 5-foot-9 point guard averages a team-high 15.5 points and ranks among the nation's leaders in assists with 7.7 per contest.Saint Joseph's will likely test the Minutemen again on the boards. The Hawks are one of the conference's better rebounding teams with an average margin of plus-6.2. UMass was outrebounded 35-28 in the last meeting, though still won 80-62 at home Feb. 9.The Hawks (9-4) are looking for their first six-game win streak since winning seven in a row Jan. 3-28, 2009. They've overcome 11-point deficits in two of their last three, winning 53-52 over Denver on Saturday after falling behind 21-10 in the first half. Saint Joseph's was 10 for 19 from the floor in the second half after knocking down only 27.6 percent of its shots in the first 20 minutes."The win is the win, but I'm upbeat in the fact that you fall down 11 to that style, you really feel like you're in a hole and that you can get there but you can't get over the top," coach Phil Martelli told the school's website. "So for us to get back and tie that game, that's a good boost, emotionally and psychology, for this group."Martelli's group might not be able to manage such a comeback against better competition if it continues to struggle at the free-throw line. While leading scorer Langston Galloway (16.9 ppg) is shooting 83.7 percent, the Hawks were 13 of 24 from the charity stripe against Denver after finishing 5 of 14 in their previous win over Binghamton.Saint Joseph's was blown out by its only ranked opponent, 98-68 to then-No. 14 Villanova at home Dec. 7. The Hawks are 1-8 in their last nine regular-season games against ranked Atlantic 10 foes.UMass has won six of eight in the series after dropping 11 of the previous 13 meetings.