There have been more than a couple of tough losses in Matt McCall's tenure as the head basketball coach at the University of Massachusetts. For UMass Nation, nothing has stuck in their collective craw more than last year's regular-season finale against Rhode Island.
"It's been a big one because of how things went last year," said UMass guard Noah Fernandes, who wasn't on the team but has heard about the game.
"It's a rivalry. You never want to lose to your rival," freshman forward Ronnie DeGray III said.
UMass and URI will play the first of their Atlantic 10 Conference home-and-home series Wednesday at 7 p.m. The game will be televised on NESN. The game was moved from a late February time in order to allow the conference to have more open dates at the end of the season if it needs to reschedule games due to COVID-19 shutdowns.
Rhode Island won the game inside Mullins 64-63 on a pair of free throws by A-10 Player of the Year candidate Fatts Russell. That Russell went to the line at all has been decried by UMass fans. It appeared on the play that UMass' Tre Mitchell, who was superlative with 34 points and 12 rebounds, had gone straight up to try and keep Russell from scoring on a drive to the basket.
"You look back on that game and you watch it on film, and it was electric in Mullins from the start to the finish. We were really bad in the first 12 minutes of that game. Then, in essentially the next 28, we were terrific in a lot of different ways," McCall said in his pre-gameday Zoom call with media members. "They're a new team. They're a different team with a lot of different personnel."
UMass, now 3-3 and 2-1 in the A-10, has an historic advantage in the record against the Rams. URI, currently 6-6 and 3-2 in conference play, has won seven of the last eight matchups. The only win by UMass in those last eight was a 77-70 win two seasons ago. That game was also played in Amherst.
"They're a new team, much like us," McCall said. "Tre and Carl [Pierre] logged a lot of minutes for us last year, played in that game a tremendous amount. Kolton [Mitchell] played in that game, but everybody else is new. We've got a lot of kids from this area and they understand that this has been a rivalry for a long, long time. We've got someone on our staff [assistant coach Tyson Wheeler] who played for that school.
"They understand what the game means, what it means to our fans, even though there's not going to be any fans in the building."
Russell is the key to success for URI. The 5-foot-10 senior guard from Philadelphia is averaging 15.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.
"He's one of the best point guards in the league, one of the best point guards in the country," Fernandes said. "You've got to do a lot of preparation for him. Defensively, you know he's going to pick up full court. Offensively, you have to try to keep him out of the lane and make him take tough shots, even though he is very good at that too."
Senior guard Jeremy Shepard helps give URI coach David Cox a very experienced backcourt. In fact, Russell and Shepard combined to score 43 points in Rhode Island's 83-68 win at VCU over the weekend.
The Minutemen are coming off an 83-67 win over La Salle on Saturday in Amherst. The win ended a two-game losing streak and marks the first of four home contests in UMass' next five games. Fernandes had another more-than-solid performance for UMass, scoring 15 points, pulling down five rebounds and recording seven assists. Freshman Cairo McCrory came off the bench to score 15, sharing the scoring lead in the game with Fernandes.
McCall said that this is an important game for UMass, and not just because it's a rivalry game.
"I think they're all big. With the dynamics of this year, staying focused on what's next in front of you, you don't know when you're going to add a game to the schedule," McCall said. "I think we've got to stay pretty level-headed and keep focused on getting better. Obviously, it's a big game for a lot of reasons. I think every single conference game is a big game. I think you see throughout this league right now, the homecourt advantage piece being taken away [because of small or no fan admittance] is a huge deal in terms of why you're going to see a lot of conferences jumbled up. Is anyone really going to pull away from the pack? Everyone was so consumed with Kentucky's [1-6] start. You have to remember that Kentucky also didn't have 20,000 fans in their building rooting their team on and at times, helping push that young team over the top.
"Is it a big game? No question. Why? Because it's tomorrow. It's Rhode Island. It's a rivalry. Rhode Island has owned this rivalry over the last several years and we've got to change that."