Since UMass ended just a win or two shy of making the NCAA tournament in both 2012 and 2013, senior point guard Chaz Williams left no doubt what his goal was for next March during a preseason conversation in October.
"We were just a couple plays away from making [the NCAA tournament] the last two years," Williams said. "We're going to do everything possible to make it this year."
The Minutemen are off to a great start in their quest to achieve Williams' goal five games into the season. They pounded previously unbeaten No. 19 New Mexico 81-65 on Friday, improving their record to 5-0 entering Sunday's Charleston Classic title game against either Clemson or Davidson.
What's more impressive than UMass' record is the list of scalps they've taken. Besides the Mountain West favorite Lobos, the Minutemen have also knocked off rapidly improving LSU and decent Boston College and Nebraska teams, good enough wins that UMass has a great chance to be ranked in the AP Top 25 on Monday if it avoids an upset Sunday night.
The key to UMass' improvement this season is the Minutemen have a stronger supporting cast around Williams even if they only go six or seven deep.
Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon gives UMass a second perimeter threat, one who is capable of consistently getting to the rim and getting to the foul line. The Minutemen also have a healthy, better-conditioned Cady Lalanne manning the center position and a stable of long, athletic forwards who defend, run the floor and finish in transition.
It was UMass' quickness and athleticism at both ends of the floor that made the biggest difference against New Mexico.
UMass forced 18 turnovers with its pressure defense and limited the Lobos to 39.1 percent shooting from the floor. New Mexico center Alex Kirk scored a career-high 32 points, but he needed 26 shots to get that and no other Lobos player besides Kendall Williams hit double figures.
On offense, it was a balanced effort. Williams scored 19 points and consistently got in the lane off the dribble, but Raphiael Putney sank a trio of threes and Lalanne notched yet another double-double with 18 points and 14 boards.
The most exciting part of UMass' early success is the Minutemen are well set up to sustain it. Non-league matchups with BYU, Providence and Florida State will pose challenges, but UMass has by far the most favorable league schedule of the Atlantic 10 contenders, facing VCU and Saint Louis only once apiece and both at home.
Barring injuries, anything short of an NCAA bid would be disappointing for UMass. And if the Minutemen continue playing at this level, it's possible they might be able to do some damage in March too if they get there.
- - - - - - -