Who: Saint Joseph’s (9-4) at #19 Massachusetts (12-1)
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Mullins Center – Amherst, Mass.
TV / Radio: Comcast Network / CBS Sports Radio 610
By JAMES HILL
By the time Saint Joseph’s takes the floor Wednesday night in Amherst, more than one month will have passed since its last loss.
Since that 30-point drubbing at the hands of Main Line rival Villanova, the Hawks have won five straight, picking up momentum heading into the Atlantic 10 season.
“When you play a rivalry game and get it handed to you like that, a lot of people abandon ship,” Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli explained Monday. “To the players’ credit, they were told that that was always going to happen and that we were going to have to stay strong… We had to just zero in on what was today, where we could get better, and make sure that we stayed tight as a unit.”
Thanks in part to a schedule that kept them at or close to home with ample time between games, the Hawks have put together their longest winning streak in two years. Though they dropped their four best chances at quality wins – games against Creighton, LSU, Temple, and Villanova – the Hawks gathered nine wins in their non-conference slate, putting themselves in position to make a run at the NCAA Tournament with a strong showing in Atlantic 10 play.
Knocking off a nationally-ranked UMass squad on their home floor would be a great step toward accomplishing that goal set at the beginning of the season.
“It’s great going into the conference on a five game winning streak,” Halil Kanacevic said following the win over Denver. “Our confidence is high, but it’s not too high – we’re not getting above our heads. UMass is a really good team, and we have to go up there. They’ve been good at home this year.
“[The conference season] is different. The level is upped a little but more in conference play.”
There is little doubt the competition will step up Wednesday night. The Minutemen enter the game with a 12-1 record against a strong non-conference schedule. UMass opened the season with 10 wins in a row, including a Charleston Classic championship and wins against LSU – who beat Saint Joseph’s by 17 – and a nationally-ranked New Mexico team.
Diminutive senior guard Chaz Williams has been the driving force for the high-scoring Minutemen. He leads his team in points and leads the conference in assists by a wide margin. Stopping him will be the main priority for the Hawks entering the game.
“They’re everything I thought they would be,” Martelli said of the Minutemen. “This is a wonderful team with tremendous balance. Every coach says a team runs through its point guard. Tell me one that is better than Chaz.”
The pace of this game may be a far cry from that of the Hawks’ last game. The Pioneers, who average 65 points per game, employed a deliberate and methodical offensive pace that limited the Hawks to 53 points and little offensive rhythm in the first half. The Minutemen, by contrast, have eclipsed the 80-point mark in eight of their 13 games and like to employ a fast-paced, wide-open style that has made them the highest-scoring Atlantic 10 team entering conference play.
“I like the UMass style better than the Denver style,” Kanacevic said. “But they play it well. You see how Denver played. Denver ran their stuff great and got good shots. Every shot they get is the shot they want. You can’t really pick either style. If it works, it works.”
Regardless of the style, the Hawks need to get over the hump and win against a quality opponent. Doing so would do wonders for Saint Joseph’s resume.
“It starts with the psychologically believing that we’re one of the best teams in the league and then we have to execute,” Martelli said. “We have to shoot fouls better, have to get more shots, and have to develop something off the bench. Now it’s time to measure up and see where we are. It’s our vehicle, always has been and always will be, if we really desire to play later in March.”
Scouting Saint Joseph’s: The Hawks will be without sophomore swingman Isaiah Miles. Miles suffered a concussion against Denver last weekend in a collision with an opposing player. Miles is averaging four points and two rebounds in almost 12 minutes per contest…. Senior Daryus Quarles failed to get off the bench Saturday against Denver, marking his first “did not play” of the season. Quarles, who averages 3.1 points per game in almost 16 minutes per contest, is likely to see the floor Wednesday night in Miles’ absence…. Langston Galloway led the Hawks with 14 points last Saturday in the 53-52 win over Denver. Those 14 points marked the lowest total for any Hawks leading scorer this season. Ronald Roberts’ 15 rebounds, however, were the most recorded by any Saint Joseph’s player this season. That total was one short of Roberts’ career high of 16 rebounds snared against Notre Dame last season…. The Hawks have dropped six of their last eight games against the Minutemen and have not won in the Mullins Center since February 2009…. The Hawks’ five-game winning streak is its longest since a five-game streak in December 2011.
Scouting UMass: UMass leads the all-time series with Saint Joseph’s, 33-29. This includes an 80-62 win at Hagan Arena last season…. UMass guard Chaz Williams has the second highest assist per game average with 7.7 assists. The 5-foot-9 senior guard also averages 15.5 points per game. He leads an offense that puts up nearly 80 points per game…. Cady Lalanne has been a force in the paint for the Minutemen. The big man averages 13.8 points per game on 59 percent shooting. He leads the Atlantic 10 in rebounds, with 9.8 per game, and blocks, with 2.8 per game…. UMass was picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, one spot above the Hawks. But following an impressive non-conference season, the Minutemen are considered by many to be a favorite to win the league’s regular-season title.
Sound Off: How must the Hawks defend Chaz Williams to slow the high-powered UMass offense down?
James Hill covers Saint Joseph’s basketball for Philahoops. Reach him at [email protected], on Twitter @jrhill17, or leave a comment below.