It seems as though Massachusetts simply does not want to stop playing basketball this season.
With its win over Seton Hall in the NIT second round on Saturday, UMass earned its 24th victory of the season – sixth best in program history – and are showing no signs of letting up any time soon.
Projected to finish 12th in the conference’s preseason poll, the surprising Minutemen are one of two Atlantic 10 teams that are still playing postseason basketball right now; the other being Xavier, which advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament on Sunday.
“We’re playing some of the best basketball we’ve played all year,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg after Saturday’s win. “And I keep saying it, they would love to play until July if they could, maybe even August if the weather’s nice.”
The Minutemen will have to settle for playing in March for now, a month they haven’t played this deep into since their NIT tournament run in 2008, when they fell to Ohio State in the championship game.
On Tuesday, UMass will have the opportunity to return to New York as the Minutemen play at Drexel in the NIT quarterfinals. The winner earns a berth to the NIT Final Four next week at Madison Square Garden.
On the sidelines, the game features two head coaches who are very familiar with each other. Dragons coach Bruiser Flint was an assistant coach at UMass in the early 1990s, when he coached Kellogg, then a point guard for the Minutemen.
After his playing days, Kellogg went on to become a graduate assistant coach at UMass for Flint, who became the coach after John Calipari departed.
Now, the pair will coach against each other for the first time in their careers, although they did scrimmage their teams against one another in the preseason.
“I think it would be a great game for the UMass family, the people that appreciated what he did up at UMass and it would also be a great game for television,” Kellogg said on Saturday.
Drexel (29-6) was believed by many to be a team worthy of an at-large selection to the NCAA tournament. The Dragons won 19 games in a row dating back to Jan. 4, but suffered a tough loss to Virginia Commonwealth in the CAA championship game that would have earned them an automatic bid. The selection committee decided their resume wasn’t good enough to make the Big Dance, which put them in the NIT.
While disappointed, it seems that Drexel hasn’t let it affect them. The Dragons flattened Central Florida in the first round of the NIT, 81-56, before prevailing over Northern Iowa, 65-63, on Sunday in the second round.
Point guard Frantz Massenat runs the show for Drexel. He enters tonight’s contest averaging 13.7 points and 4.7 assists per game on the season. The Dragons also breed top scorers Damion Lee (12.2 ppg), Samme Givens (11.6 ppg) and Chris Fouch (10.9 ppg).
With a win, UMass would be the fourth team in NIT history to advance to Madison Square Garden having won three road games to get there. The Minutemen opened up NIT play with a double overtime victory at Mississippi State before dethroning the Pirates, the top seed in their bracket, on Sunday.
The game is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. from the Daskalakis Center in Philadelphia. It will be nationally televised on ESPN.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MDC_Hewitt and @steve_hewitt.