Gordon provides valuable piece to the puzzle for No. 19 UMass

Gordon (2) has been a valuable piece to the UMass run. (Photo: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports)
Gordon (2) has been a valuable piece to the UMass run. (Photo: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports)

By Paul Gotham

Derrick Gordon grabbed headlines recently. The redshirt sophomore’s putback gave Derek Kellogg’s then No. 22 UMass Minutemen a 69-67 victory over rival Providence.

Gordon’s bucket with 1.1 seconds left in overtime lifted UMass to consecutive last-second victories over the Friars.

The attention was overdue for a player who Kellogg insists is a key piece for the Minutemen who have the NCAA Tournament in their sights for the first time in more than a decade.

“He’s a tough kind of role guy who will do everything for the team,” Kellogg said during the weekly Atlantic 10 conference call. “Those types of guys are important. At times they don’t get the recognition they deserve.”

Despite reaching the Atlantic 10 semi-finals each of the past two seasons, UMass found themselves on the outside looking in when it came to the NCAA Tournament. Their non-conference strength of schedule (or lack of it) was the convenient excuse.

Kellogg and his staff took the snubs to heart and cobbled together a slate ranked No. 1 by ESPN, No. 7 by CBS, No. 8 by RealTime RPI, No. 13 by Stat Sheet, No. 19 by Jeff Sagarin and No. 39 by Ken Pomeroy.

Scheduling is one thing. Executing is another. The Minutemen have rattled off a dozen wins with just one setback. In December, UMass returned to the rankings for the first time since 1998.

The plan hasn’t changed much on the floor. UMass plays up-tempo. Their 75.4 possessions per game top the A10 and are 17th in the country. They score 79.7 points a game – seven more than the national average.

But the difference for UMass has been what they do other end of the floor. While creating three more possessions per game over last year, the Minutemen have trimmed a point and a half from their opponents’ output.

It’s a commitment to defense, and Kellogg knows Gordon is a big reason for the success.

“He’s kind of a defense first, lockdown guy,” Kellogg added. “He’s been a good addition to what we already had, and I think that’s why we’ve made a jump as a team,”

After sitting out last year per the NCAA transfer requirements, Gordon averages 9.5 points and 3.3 rebounds while playing 29.8 minutes a game. He also is part of a defense which limits opponents to just 26.7 percent behind the arc.

The Plainfield, N.J. native played his freshman season at Western Kentucky where he led the Hilltoppers in points (11.8) and rebounds (6.7).

“He’s another guy who has a good winning culture,” Kellogg stated.

The Minutemen opened the season with an 86-73 victory over Boston College. From there the Minutemen knocked off LSU, Nebraska, then No. 19/20 New Mexico, Clemson, BYU and the Friars.

“To be 12-1 with the schedule we’ve played has really reached and exceeded expectations to a certain extent,” Kellogg commented. “Obviously, I’m excited about where we are. I also realize with the strength of our league and how tough it will be to stay where we are. That’s the next step for this team and this program.”

UMass opens A10 play against St. Joseph’s. The Hawks come into the game winners of five straight – their longest streak since December 2011.

St. Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli knows full well what to expect when he takes his team to Amherst.

“They’re everything I thought they were. They’re a national team. They should be talked about nationally. They should have been talked about nationally going into the season. This is a wonderful, wonderful team with tremendous balance,” Martelli said. “It’s extraordinary when Derrick Gordon is your fifth leading scorer.”

This will be the second game of the season against a ranked opponent for St. Joseph’s. The Hawks fell to No. 14 Villanova earlier. SJU went 1-4 last season against Top 25 teams with a victory over Notre Dame. A win over UMass would be the highest ranked opponent defeated for the Hawks since downing then No. 19 Creighton in December of 2011.

Naismith and Bob Cousy Award Watch List candidate, Chaz Williams leads the Minutemen with 15.5 points and 7.7 assists. Cady Lalanne adds 13.8 and 9.8 rebounds. Sampson Carter and Raphiael Putney chip in with 12.3 and 10.5 points.

UMass downed Providence 77-75  in last year’s Puerto Rico tip-off.

A 7 p.m. tip time is scheduled at the Mullins Center. The game will be televised on Sports New York.

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