Let’s just hold all of our practices in plane terminals from now on.

This season of UMass basketball has been alternated between relieving, frustrating, encouraging, discouraging, fun to watch and eye-melting. Sometimes, all of the above in the same game.

Tonight’s 78-69 triumph in Olean, where UMass refused to let a flight scare and a broken-down team bus sidetrack them from their goals, is another step in the right direction for a team that can’t seem to decide which direction it is headed in, but which has so far taken slightly more steps forward than backward this year.

UMass led this game wire-to-wire. They got out to a blistering start, shooting extremely well and holding Bonnies star Andrew Nicholson in check. They proceeded then to nearly give the game away in the early part of the second half, a continued recurring theme this year (see: Quinnipiac), but the strong first half gave UMass enough of a safety net that they were able to right the ship with a big run and put the game away.

What I liked about tonight’s game is that, from what I could see on the choppy ChannelSurfing feed, the dribble-drive offense was actually successful. UMass had absolutely no trouble gaining penetration, letting Gurley drive to the hoop over and over again, or dishing out to guys like Correia and Riley for threes, or finding Sean Carter for easy finishes. It was important for the Minutemen to establish their outside game early tonight, hitting 4 of their first 5 threes. When the team comes out cold, they tend to stay cold, and the D can concentrate on closing down the middle without worrying about leaving guys open outside. UMass needs to improve on its “plan B” for when the shots aren’t falling early, but in their recent wins, shooting has been great early.

And making up for their lack of practice, I thought the guys came out running tonight. Guys were beating their men down the court in transition, even Vinson (who looks a LOT better in the last few games, and I think the injury woes are behind him) had a few Tommy Point moments. Hell, even Census-Designated Place knocked down a hook. Even with all the Traynham drama, this team is a lot more organized and defined than last year’s mess. Gurley is finally becoming the brilliant scorer we always knew he could be (like Harris before him, and Gaffney before him, and Forbes before him…damnit, why does every UMass star only seem to flourish as a senior?!), and Farrell is becoming a quality #2 scoring threat who does a little of everything. Sean Carter also continues to impress with his energy and it seems like every game he’s more and more in control of what he’s doing on the court.

The non-conference struggles seem to be behind this team. Losing by 29 at CCSU seems to be more of an aberration than anything else, a case of a team being totally unprepared to play and taking a solid road opponent lightly. There’s been much more of a spark under this team ever since then, even in the blowout losses to Richmond and Xavier, both of whom look like they’re headed to the big dance this year. UMass has shown that it can win on the road against middle-to-low tier A-10 teams, carving out a spot in the 4-8 range of upper-middle tier squads in the conference, with the likes of URI, Dayton, and George Washington.

If they continue to progress, I think UMass’s ceiling for this year at this point is a home game in the first round of the A-10 tourney, a possible home game in the NIT first round, and I don’t see why they couldn’t make a bit of a run in either tournament. They’re not there yet, despite what the 7-0 start had many of us hoping. But (if you like to count D2 wins) they’ve already matched last season’s win total, are 1 away from matching last year’s conference win total, and they’ve already played two of the three best teams in the conference. If they can continue to compete like this night in and night out, 20 wins is a possibility, and that would be quite the accomplishment for a team picked to finish near the bottom of the league.

The team returns home to face Rhode Island on Sunday at 4 PM. Other than the fact that we play Temple later in the year, there’s NO REASON why this shouldn’t be the biggest home crowd of the year. Tell everyone you know. We’re certainly going to do what we can to hype this up. For chrissakes, even St. Fucking Bonaventure in the frozen tundra of western New York had a large and lively student section. I know, I can’t fault many for their skepticism. “These are the same old Minutemen. They’re gonna just let us down again. They never build off of big wins.” Trust me, I’ve thought it too. But the worm has to turn eventually. It’s 2 hours, guys. The Minutemen just risked life and limb to secure a win for our school. We can at least give them a warm welcome back. FTFB!

– Max

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