Mar 10, 2012; Atlantic City, NJ, USA; Massachusetts Minutemen guard Chaz Williams (3) against the Xavier Musketeers in the semifinals of the 2012 Atlantic 10 Tournament at Boardwalk Hall. Mandatory Credit: Jim O

Massachusetts Minutemen Basketball Season Preview

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The college hoops season is right around the corner, and Busting Brackets is here to whet your basketball-starved appetite. Over the next five weeks, we are publishing season previews team by team, conference by conference, to offer a glimpse into the upcoming season. Busting Brackets is giving you the lowdown on the biggest storylines, offseason changes and x-factors for each team and each league as we roll into the 2012-13 season. Our complete season preview archive can be accessed here. Buckle up, peeps.

  Massachusetts Minutemen

Last Season 25-12 (9-7 A-10)
Lost to St. Bonaventure in semifinals of A-10 tournament
Lost to Stanford in NIT semifinals
Key Returning Players: Chaz Williams, G
Raphiael Putney, F
Terrell Vinson, F
Jesse Morgan, G
Sampson Carter, F
Cady Lalanne, C
Freddie Riley, G
Key Additions: Isaac Freeman, C (South Kent School)
Curtis “Trey” Davis, G (Vermont Academy)
Key Losses: Sean Carter, C
Top Non-Conference Games: Nov. 13 vs. Harvard
Nov. 15 vs. Providence (Puerto Rico Tip-Off)
Nov. 16 vs. NC State or Penn State (Puerto Rico Tip-Off)
Dec. 1 vs. Miami (FL)
Dec. 19 vs. Ohio
Top Conference Games: Jan. 10 @ Saint Louis
Jan. 30 @ La Salle
Feb. 9 vs. Saint Joseph’s
Feb. 14 @ VCU
Feb. 16 vs. Temple
Mar. 7 vs. Butler
Breakout Player: Chaz Williams. The electrifying little point guard enters the year as one of the hot preseason picks for the A-10 Player of the Year award. And for good reason. Williams won over Minutemen fans with his dazzling play down the stretch in conference play. The playmaking guard averaged 19.7 points and 7.3 assists per game over the team’s final seven games of the A-10 season (including two conference tournament tilts). That hot play seeped into the NIT tournament, where Williams averaged 21.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists in leading the Minutemen to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Final Four. During that run, Williams was the steadying force in a topsy-turvy double overtime win on the road at Mississippi State, then was the impetus behind a thrilling, 17-point second half comeback at Drexel to send UMass to the semifinals. At 5-foot-9, Williams is inch-for-inch one of the best players in all of college basketball. He can get careless with his shot selection and is closer to a gunner than a pure point guard, but with a year under his belt in the A-10, the upside for Williams in year two at UMass is immense. If the Hofstra transfer doesn’t win A-10 Player of the Year honors, building off his strong finish to last season and parlaying that momentum into individual accolades, I’d be surprised.
X-Factor: Managing Depth. Head coach Derek Kellogg stuck to an eight-man rotation out of necessity last season when forward Sampson Carter went down for the year with a hip injury and freshman center Cady Lalanne fractured his foot, forcing him to miss all of conference play plus the postseason. With Carter and Lalanne returning to the fold and impact freshman center Isaac Freeman poised to contribute immediately, Kellogg will have to manage an issue most A-10 coaches covet: an overabundance of depth. Of last year’s regular eight-man rotation (not factoring Carter or Lallane), only Sean Carter, the team’s leading rebounder from last season, is gone. The Minutemen return a bevy of experienced and battle-tested talent to Amherst and will have to vie for playing time with 10 guys realistically in the mix. Chaz Williams will be guaranteed his 35 minutes, but how Kellogg meets out the other 165 minutes could go a long way in determining if UMass can come out on top in a loaded A-10 conference. Depth (if you’re an optimist) or an overcrowded roster (if you’re a pessimist) is a basketball coach’s best dream. When not managed properly, however, it can also be a coach’s worst nightmare.
Best Case: Chaz Williams has a season deserving of A-10 player of the year honors. Sampson Carter and Cady Lalanne return seamlessly from the injuries that cost them the second half of last season and the Minutemen are a force on the glass. UMass’s stellar defense, which ranked fourth in the A-10 last season in defensive efficiency, is up to the task again in 2012-13. Isaac Freeman makes an instant impact in his freshman season, provided added depth and cushion inside for a Minutemen squad that will be plenty able on the perimeter. Unsung senior leader Terrell Vinson, a clutch performer and floor leader who was instrumental in the team’s comeback win against Drexel during last year’s NIT, continues to serve as the glue for a team replete with veteran leadership. Inconsistent guards Jesse Morgan and Freddie Riley, who were tantalizingly good at times and exasperating at others, harness their shot selections en route to more consistent seasons. Raphiael Putney, the dual-threat forward who tended to shy away in crunch time, has a breakout junior season. The Minutemen, led by Williams, a balanced blend of capable of scorers and willing defenders and depth unmatched by any other team in the league, win the A-10. UMass caps off its season by winning a game or two in the NCAA tournament, where Williams’ talent is put on full display.
Worst Case: Williams, still more of a gunner than a floor general, shoots UMass out of several winnable games. Missing a pure point guard to facilitate the offense, UMass never makes proper use out of its arsenal of offensive talent. Sampson Carter and Cady Lalanne are not fully healthy or productive and the Minutemen rue the loss of Sean Carter, their top boards-getter from a season ago. The defense slips, especially on the perimeter, where Morgan and Riley continue to frustrate fans with their fickle play. Putney continues to wilt in big spots, while Williams is guilty of trying to do too much in those same situations. The increased exposure and national acclaim gets to his ahead, causing a rift in the team that not even Vinson can correct in time. Kellogg does a poor job handling his depth, so much so that one or two players transfer out of the program come season’s end. UMass isn’t up to par with fellow conference favorites Saint Joseph’s, VCU and Saint Louis. The Minutemen finish the year closer to the middle of the league than the top, and miss out on an at-large NCAA tournament berth thanks to a sloppy final stretch.
Projected Finish: 21-8 (11-5 Atlantic-10)
Lose in semifinals of A-10 tournament
NCAA tournament at-large berth
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