Saint Louis (7-15, 3-7) and UMass (12-11, 2-8) both sit at the bottom of the A-10 standings. The optics of both records aren’t good, but it’s a matter of perspective.
The Billikens picked up their third conference win Wednesday against George Mason in double overtime, completing a season sweep of the Patriots. Reaching that victory total - modest as it may be - seemed unrealistic when A-10 play began.
Travis Ford inherited an already-depleted roster before seeing two of its better players (Miles Reynolds, Milik Yarbrough) transfer out of the program. It was never going to be a pretty debut season. That was driven home by a 4-8 non-con run in which the Billikens posted one of the nation’s least efficient offenses and were beaten by 21 points or more four times.
But they haven’t stopped competing.
“I told our team in the locker room, they should expect to win these,” Ford said to [the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after Wednesday’s win]. “Hopefully we’re getting to the point that we’re not just hoping to compete. We’re getting better and should start expecting it out of ourselves.”
The Billikens have gone 3-3 over their past six games, which included a near-win at GW last Saturday. This recent improvement is all the more impressive since Ford is essentially playing a six-man rotation with Jermaine Bishop and Zeke Moore sidelined.
As it has all season, the team has relied on seniors Mike Crawford - who had a career-high 24 points and the game winner against GMU - and Reggie Agbeko. The pair were freshmen on the 2013-14 team that went 27-7 and won a game in the NCAA Tournament.
Ford has had significant wins on the recruiting trail as he tries to return SLU to that level. The recent bump must provide some vindication for Crawford and Agbeko as they help Ford try and regain a winning tradition. Its significance doesn’t appear to be lost on Ford, who took the stadium microphone and thanked the fans after the GMU win.
SLU coach Travis Ford thanks the crowd after a double-OT win over George Mason. pic.twitter.com/bMVCjwBsIq— stu durando (@studurando) February 2, 2017
UMass has a very different view of the A-10 cellar.
Derek Kellogg had his own wins on the recruiting trail, but they were supposed to translate into the win column this season. Of the top-25 class he brought in this year, he seems to only trust Luwane Pipkins and DeJon Jarreau. Chris Baldwin (7.2 MPG), Tyrn Flowers (12.8 MPG) and Brison Gresham (13.9 MPG) have barely registered in his rotation in league play.
The Minutemen went 10-3 in the non-con, and seemed to shrug off an 0-3 start in the A-10 with an upset of Dayton in Amherst. Since then, they’ve gone 1-5 and only beaten depleted-St. Joe’s.
That record does come with an asterisk, as UMass has been right there in each game, with four of the five losses coming by four points or less. Even Wednesday’s 10-point loss at La Salle saw the Minutemen holding a 39-34 half time lead.
Still, the season has been a disappointment for many that expected a talented UMass team to take advantage of its depth, play fast and make a leap in the A-10 standings. The Minutemen have played fast, but have also turned it over far too much while struggling mightily from distance.
They’ve also had a difficult time defending without fouling. That was a major issue against La Salle, where the Explorers made more free throws (24) than the Minutemen attempted (20).
Kellogg talked about his frustration with the second half mistakes after the game.
“I’m going to go on this bus for the next five hours and I’m pulling out every play we made in the second half that was just a bad basketball play or a missed assignment, where we just looked like we’re not a very good team in those situations,” Kellogg [told the Daily Collegian].
Turnovers and fouls are things a young team can improve on, and UMass does (or can) return its entire roster next year. That plus Kellogg’s status as a program icon would seem to ensure he’s still the coach, but the situation has grown more tenuous.
And that’s the matter of perspective. A 3-7 coach excitedly picks up a microphone and thanks the fans, while a 2-8 coach frantically searches for answers.