The University of Massachusetts has a pretty big basketball game this afternoon at Rhode Island.

It's not a must-win, but it is a game Derek Kellogg's team would like to have in the win column.

Even if they don't win, don't fret about the future of the Minutemen. Unless they lose every game between now and March 5, they're going to the NCAA Tournament.

I remind you of all this because last week I got an anonymous call -- which I dislike, by the way -- and the voice at the other end proceeded to tell me that UMass wasn't very good.

The Minutemen were coming off losses at Richmond and St. Bonaventure, with a win over a bad Fordham team stuck in the middle like the filling in a not-very-tasty Oreo.

In response to the caller, I say today what I've been saying for more than a month: UMass only needs to be OK in order to reach the big dance.

Now if Kellogg's team suffers a couple of major injuries, all bets could be off. Those are things you can't count on.

By saying OK, that means it won't hurt if they lose home games to Virginia Common wealth and Saint Louis and a road game to George Washing ton. All three of those teams were in the top 35 Thursday on the RealTimeRPI.com site. UMass sits 12th, and that's the second-best RPI in either the Atlantic 10, Big East or American Athletic Conference -- the three leagues with lots of teams around here. Only Villanova, at No. 3, was better.

None of UMass' last three losses -- at Richmond, St. Bonaventure and Saint Joseph's -- could be considered bad losses. The Bonnies are the worst team of the three, and they are No. 80 in RealTime RPI, while Richmond is 43rd and Saint Joe's 54th.

There are six A-10 teams in the top 60 of the RPI, which tells you the conference is really good this year.

What you don't want to see, if you are a UMass fan, is a loss at home to No. 183 George Mason or on the road at No. 198 Duquesne. Those losses will send UMass plummeting -- the same thing with this afternoon's game at No. 148 Rhode Island.

But the Rams are a better team than their RPI gives them credit. They have had a number of close losses.

"[To] play well and win would be great," Kellogg said. "We're going to come and we need to play well.

"If we play well, normally the results will be where they should be. If not, the other team played a great game."

The Rams beat Dayton by double figures and lost by a point to Saint Louis. The Rams also lost to Providence by a point. The Friars came to Amherst in December and lost to the Minutemen in double-overtime.

"This is a team that, at home, has traditionally played some of the top teams not only in our league but in the country pretty tight and pretty close," Kellogg said.

So the 1-3 record in the four games before LaSalle could end up being nothing more than a bump in the road. That is, if the Minutemen do what they're capable of doing.

"As a coach, you go through phases yourself through a season. It gets to a point where they've got to be willing to do it. If not, you're just kind of knocking your head against the wall," Kellogg said after Wednesday's win over LaSalle. "We had a good run. We made a nice run. It's time to reset the deck. They were ready. I was ready. We all brought energy for a couple of days.

"Now I think we're ready for this last push. I really know we are. That's what we're going to do. We're going to push, push like crazy."

To reach Howard Herman:
hherman@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6253.
On Twitter: @howardherman.