Op-Ed: UMass can use the perimeter against Harvard to start 6-1 for the first time since 2013

UMass Men’s Basketball travels to Cambridge tonight searching for state supremacy against Harvard.

Brendan Cassidy, Contributor

The UMass Minutemen have started off their season 5-1 in the first year of the Frank Martin era. After over a week off after winning the Myrtle Beach Invitational, the Minutemen played in their first true road game of the season on Tuesday in Tampa, beating South Florida 73-67. Tuesday’s game was representative of most of the Minutemen’s games this season; a great display of defense and a streaky offense susceptible to stretches without many field goals. 

Martin related the performance of his team in closing time on Tuesday to that of “a bunch of second graders”. Despite taking home the trophy in Myrtle Beach, the Minutemen struggled down the stretch in games against Colorado and Charlotte, scoring less than five points in the last four minutes in each game. 

Tommy Amaker remains the head coach of the Harvard Crimson despite rumors that he was next in line for the Duke job after the retirement of the legendary Mike Krzyzewski. The team has been carried by forward Chris Ledlum through eight games, who is averaging 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds while leading the team in steals as well. Harvard has already played two Atlantic-10 opponents this season, losing to Fordham but beating Loyola Chicago, who were picked to finish above UMass in the conference preseason poll.

Both teams feature deep rotations, as the Crimson have seven players who average at least 20 minutes per game while Martin continues to shuffle up his lineups as the season picks up. Harvard will be one of the biggest teams that the Minutemen play before the new year; the probable starting five for the Crimson will be 6-foot-6-inches or taller apart from point guard Evan Nelson who will have his hands full with his counterpart in UMass’ Noah Fernandes. Against the Crimson last season Fernandes played one of the best games of his Minuteman career, notching 24 points and 9 assists in a comeback win for UMass. Ledlum led the Crimson with 20 points in that game. 

When the fiery Frank Martin came to Amherst, it was certain that the Minutemen would develop a defensive focus that has been a characteristic of Martin’s teams at Kansas State and South Carolina. So far, so good. The Minutemen haven’t given up 70 points in a game yet this season, with the 6-foot-10-inch Wildens Leveque leading the way by controlling the paint.

Pair that with the 28% that the Crimson are shooting from three-point land this year, it’ll be tough for Harvard to break UMass’ streak of holding teams under 70. The Minutemen as a team are slightly above 40% from three on the year, while holding opponents to 27.5% from distance. The Minutemen can win this game on the perimeter and should attempt more than the 17.3 3FGA they are averaging in 2022. Look for the team’s best shooters; Fernandes, guard TJ Weeks and forward Matt Cross to let loose.

With the Minutemen starting 5-1 and the majority of the A-10 looking mediocre in non-conference play, some fans may be wondering if there are NCAA Tournament dreams in Amherst this year. The last time the Minutemen reached the big dance was in 2014 under Derek Kellogg, who is back on the coaching staff this year. There is a long way to go, but every game matters in the world of college basketball. A win away from home against a solid team like Harvard will look good on the resumé that UMass has started building, while a loss in this game could end up proving costly in March. Am I getting ahead of myself? The two teams will tip off at 7 p.m. tonight at Lavietes Pavilion in Cambridge, MA.

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