In looking at the first month of the 2013-14 season, it’s difficult to find too many teams who have enjoyed a better start to the season than the UMass Minutemen. Picked in the preseason to finish fourth in the Atlantic 10, Derek Kellogg’s team is off to a 6-0 start with five of those wins coming against programs in “power” conferences. The sixth victory came on Sunday night in the title game of the Charleston Classic, as the Minutemen beat Clemson 62-56, and to this point in the season UMass has put together a resume that could benefit them come Selection Sunday.
6-foot-10 junior center Cady Lalanne put together another excellent performance against the Tigers, scoring 20 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking four shots to lead the way for UMass. In six games Lalanne, who averaged 8.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game as a sophomore, has four double-doubles and is averaging 17.8 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks on the season. To say that Lalanne, who tallied six double-doubles all of last season, has improved by leaps and bounds would be an understatement.
UMass has talent on the perimeter and on the wings, with point guard Chaz Williams running the show and Derrick Gordon, Sampson Carter and Raphiael Putney rounding out the starting lineup. But for the Minutemen to contend in the Atlantic 10 and have a shot at ending the program’s NCAA tournament drought (UMass hasn’t reached the Big Dance since 1998), UMass needed Lalanne to take steps towards being one of the Atlantic 10’s best big men. Through six games, it certainly looks as if Lalanne’s done so.
This should be seen as a productive weekend for Clemson as well, with Rod Hall leading the Tigers on Sunday night with 16 points. One important development for the Tigers going forward could be the play of Devin Coleman in the title game. Entering Sunday the freshman played a total of 20 minutes in five games but against UMass Coleman took full advantage of the opportunity, scoring ten points in seven minutes of action. Clemson isn’t going to win many shootouts this season, but they’ve got the ability to make things difficult on teams in the ACC.
The expectations were higher for UMass entering the season, and these six games show that to expect an NCAA tournament bid out of this group is well within reason. But for a program that hasn’t experienced that level of success for quite some time, the question to be answered is how the Minutemen will deal with raised expectations. If UMass can do that, there should be little doubt that they can contend for the Atlantic 10 title.
Michigan State has climbed on the back of star senior wing Denzel Valentine early in the season but they’ll undoubtedly need more help as the season goes on if they want to sustain their current top-5 ranking. One of the keys to the Spartans could be the on-going health of sophomore point guard Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn, who is battling a foot injury.
According to a report from Kyle Austin of MLive.com, Nairn has been putting on a protective boot the last few months to help battle plantar fasciitis as the guard has been playing in practices and hasn’t had his minutes reduced in games.
The injury looked like it was hurting Nairn’s early-season play, but he’s been very good in two games at the Wooden Legacy in California this week, so it could be that he’s getting more used to playing through the pain of the injury.
If Nairn is healthy and capable of contributing, he’s a huge boost to Michigan State because he’s one of the fastest players in college basketball and an additional ball handler on the floor. Through six games so far this season, Nairn is averaging 5.3 points and 4.7 assists per game as he’s been one of the team’s best distributors.
Plantar fasciitis can be a tough injury to fight through, so we’ll have to see if this affects Nairn as the season goes along.
GAME OF THE DAY: George Washington vs. No. 24 Cincinnati, 1:30 p.m.
Two 6-0 teams clash at the Barclays Center in what could be an important game for NCAA tournament resumes of both teams. The Bearcats picked up their most legitimate win over Nebraska, but the Colonials pose as a more real threat after they beat Virginia at home earlier this season. Cincinnati hasn’t shot the ball well in recent wins, but they’re beating up opponents on the glass and the defense has been solid. George Washington is coming off of a win over Tennessee in which they held off the Volunteers in the second half. The Colonials have lost 20 of their last 23 against ranked opponents, but another win over a top team would look great for them going forward.
THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: No. 4 Iowa State vs. Illinois, 6:00 p.m. (CBSSN)
This game is apart of the Emerald Coast Classic in Niceville, Florida as the Illini could desperately use a win after a 3-3 start. Illinois head coach John Groce and his team are feeling the pressure for a big win on a neutral site after falling to North Florida, Providence and Chattanooga earlier in the season. The No. 4 Cyclones easily dispatched Virginia Tech earlier in the event and have found a nice balance on offense with the emergence of senior big man Jameel McKay inside.
SIX THINGS TO WATCH FOR
- N0. 2 Maryland has struggled to put away teams early at times this season and they’ll try to change that behavior when they host Cleveland State.
- Staying in the Big Ten, No. 16 Purdue hosts Lehigh. With a game at Pitt and against New Mexico looming, could this be a trap game for the Boilers?
- Nebraska and Tennessee take the floor in consolation action at the Barclays Center. The Huskers need someone besides Shavon Shields and Andrew White to step up in the scoring column while Tennessee is getting huge numbers from senior guard Kevin Punter.
- Two 4-0 teams will meet in Brooklyn as Louisville takes on Saint Louis (7:00 p.m., ESPN3). Neither team has faced a significant test this season and this is the Cardinals’ first game away from home.
- An intriguing night game to keep an eye on is Belmont traveling to BYU (8:00 p.m.). The Bruins are as well-coached as any team in the country and forward Evan Bradds has been playing great ball to start the season. The Cougars don’t have a high scorer like they did in the past, but Kyle Collinsworth is a triple-double threat every time he steps on the floor and BYU has a lot of weapons around him.
- UAB and Virginia Tech battle in one of the more intriguing consolation games of the Emerald Coast Classic. Both teams are coming off of disappointing losses but have a shot to make things better on the trip with a solid win on Saturday.
OTHER NOTABLE GAMES
- Bryant at Georgetown, 11:00 a.m. (FS2)
- Bucknell at Penn State , 12:00 p.m.
- Tennessee-Martin vs. Mississippi State, 12:00 p.m. (SEC Network)
- Ole Miss at Bradley, 1:00 p.m. (ESPN3)
- Old Dominion at VCU, 3:00 p.m.
- Hawaii at Texas Tech, 3:00 p.m.
- Kent State at Pitt, 3:00 p.m. (ESPN3)
- SIU-Edwardsville at Butler, 4:00 p.m.
- Georgia at Seton Hall, 6:30 p.m.
- Western Illinois at Creigton, 7:00 p.m.
- Colorado State vs UTEP, 7:30 p.m.