Tonight, the Gators face the Massachusetts Minutemen with the winner advancing to the NIT Championship Game. Erik Gallant of the fantastic MinuteBlog on Masslive.com will be at Madison Square Garden and was nice enough to answer five questions about the men of Amherst. (My responses to his five questions are here. They even used my Catholic name!)
1. UMass looked impressive in storming back to defeat Syracuse. But they also gave up 50 in the second half of their loss to Charlotte in the A-10 tournament. Are they a hot-and-cold team or are they poor defensively against certain styles?
UMass began playing better defense in the final third of the season, but overall they are an average at best defensive team. Their greatest strengths defensively are using their opponents' fatigue against them and the blocked shot. I think the Syracuse game was a good example of the fatigue method, where UMass allowed lots of easy baskets in transition, but excelled at answering those baskets very, very quickly. Their frontcourt players block a lot of shots because they play very aggressively in the paint, sometimes too aggressively in the case of center Dante Milligan, who led the nation in foul outs this season (4 of which came in 10 minutes or less). Their other good post defender and shot- blocker, Tony Gaffney, hurt his knee in the NIT 2nd round, and missed the Syracuse game. He is expected to play Tuesday, but who knows how effective he will be. UMass struggles against teams that play at a methodical (not necessarily slow) pace, who keep it a halfcourt game. That Charlotte game was lost primarily through an outrageously poor rebounding effort by UMass that saw Charlotte grab more offensive boards than UMass had defensive boards.
2. The Syracuse comeback was surprising in its scope, but is UMass generally an offense that can score in bunches?
Just like on defense, UMass runs extremely hot and cold on offense, too. They played a game this year against St. Joseph's where they scored 16 points in the first half and 61 in the second. That's about as hot and cold as it gets. They can put up points in a hurry when they are making their outside shots, and are able to set up the press. Etienne Brower, Ricky Harris, and Gary Forbes are all guys who love to shoot the deep ball, and if they're feeling it, they won't hesitate to jack up 10 treys apiece.
3. Offensively, is there one area where the Minutemen struggle?
In the post, no doubt about it. Milligan is their primary inside scorer, and he is often a non-factor due to the foul trouble I mentioned earlier. That being said, Milligan is the kind of player who will either score 15 points or 2 points in a game, so he does have some decent post moves. The biggest problem is a lack of a big bruiser inside presence.
4. Gary Forbes leads the team in points and rebounds. Does UMass need him to win or can someone else carry the load?
Until the Syracuse game last week I would have said yes, they need Forbes to score at least 12 or 14 points to beat a good team. But against Syracuse, he was held to single digits the first time this season. So I guess anything's possible. But in Tuesday's game, they absolutely need a good game from Forbes. There's no question though that he (along with point guard Chris Lowe) is the key player on the team, a real play-maker who makes this team's offense click. He's coming off back-to-back lousy games, so I'm hoping that's an aberration and not a trend.
5. Florida (and the fans) look at the NIT as a rest stop prior to another deep NCAA run next season. What is the sense of the NIT for the UMass program and their fans?
UMass fans are tough for me to figure out. Clearly Travis Ford has reinvigorated the basketball program, with back-to-back 24-win seasons, but fan support remains lower than what the team deserves. I think the diehard fans are very excited to be in the NIT Final Four because they have some perspective on the situation and understand that UMass is an up-and-coming program, and this is a significant stepping stone on that journey. But I don't think the team has really caught on beyond that core group of hardcore fans. I know the athletic department is anticipating a strong turnout at MSG, though, so maybe the bandwagon picked up a head of steam after the Syracuse game. I hope so, because this is a very, very fun team to watch.