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UMass strengthens tourney case with 80-75 win over VCU

Chaz WilliamsChaz Williams scored 20 points with four rebounds against VCU on Friday night. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

That should seal it.

It is possible that UMass will not make the NCAA Tournament, I suppose. But after the Minutemen beat VCU, 80-75, Friday night, they almost assuredly will. Barring a huge collapse, UMass is going dancing for the first time since 1998.

The Minutemen have an RPI of 15, a 6-2 record against the top-50, 13-4 mark against the top 100 and just one loss to a team ranked outside of the top 100. They played a reasonably tough non-conference schedule -- it ranks 25th in the RPI -- and managed to get through it with just one loss. They’ve beaten seven teams that are either in contention for or on track to earn an at-large tourney bid. In the latest version of the Bracket Matrix, which compiles more than 60 bracket projections from across the Internet, the Minutemen are a No. 7 seed. The résumé’s there.

After beating Elon on January 18 to move to 16-1, UMass slogged through a rough patch where is lost four of seven games -- including one at home on February 12 to a woeful George Mason (9-17, 2-10 A-10) team. But they’ve now won two games in a row against two of the Atlantic 10’s top teams. Last Saturday, senior forward Sampson Carter scored 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting to lead the Minutemen past George Washington in Washington D.C.

On Friday, it was senior guard Chaz Williams who stepped up for UMass. He scored 20 points, grabbed four rebounds, dished out four assists and hit four free throws in the final 20 seconds to ice the game. UMass couldn’t take care of the ball in its two meetings with the Rams last season; it committed a combined 47 turnovers. The Minutemen had only 14 giveaways on Friday and forced the Rams to cough it up 17 times for a +3 turnover margin.

After the game, Williams, who made a key steal on Rams guard Briante Weber with less than 20 seconds remaining before sinking two free throws, explained the acronym that defines his team’s defensive approach. “We bring P.A.I.N.,” Williams said, according to ESPN. “Pressure, agitate, interrupt, neutralize.” He also mentioned VCU’s turnover-forcing pressure D. “We don't bring no Havoc. That's their slogan; That's what they do. We're all about P.A.I.N over here.”

With the win, UMass moved into a tie for third place in the Atlantic 10 with George Washington. The Minutemen will close the regular season with a manageable schedule: Rhode Island, at Dayton, at Duquesne and Saint Louis. That last one won’t be easy, of course. But based on how the Minutemen have played over the past two games, it’s not a stretch to think they could upset the No. 10-ranked Billikens.

Even if they don’t, the Minutemen are very likely headed to the NCAA Tournament. That’s a big accomplishment for a team that hasn’t tasted college basketball’s premier postseason tournament this century, but has steadily improved under coach Derek Kellogg over the past five seasons. Where the Minutemen are seeded will depend on how they fare the final two-plus weeks of the regular season. Their current two-game win streak suggests they will help, and not hurt, their standing in the eyes of the selection committee.

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