EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Massachusetts sophomore Carmelo Travieso began the season as the fourth guard in Coach John Calipari's three-guard rotation.
In the Minutemen's 24-point, season-opening victory over Arkansas, Travieso played only seven minutes after watching Mike Williams, Edgar Padilla and Derek Kellogg play most of the game.
But that was in November, and Travieso's role has changed since then.
When second-seeded UMass (29-4) takes the floor today to play No. 4 Oklahoma State (26-9) in the East Regional championship game at the Meadowlands Arena, Travieso will make his second start of the season and it could not come in a bigger game.
With Williams long gone after being kicked off the team by Calipari for disciplinary reasons and Padilla sidelined with a foot sprain he suffered in UMass' 76-51 victory over Tulsa on Friday night, Travieso's role will be a key against the Cowboys.
"At the beginning of the season, my role was to come off the bench, but our bench has always been the heart of our team," said Travieso, who made three three-point baskets and grabbed six rebounds against Tulsa. "My role will not change much except that I'll play more minutes. I'll still have to provide some outside shooting and play good defense."
At 6 feet 2, 175 pounds, Travieso is the Minutemen's most physical guard. He will be assigned to guard Oklahoma State's high-scoring swingman Randy Rutherford, who had 23 points and 11 rebounds in the Cowboys' 71-66 victory over Wake Forest on Friday.
Rutherford, a 6-3 senior, is averaging 19.7 points and 6.3 rebounds and with 138 three-point shots--third-highest in NCAA history in a season--provides Oklahoma State with the outside punch to complement the inside force of Bryant (Big Country) Reeves, the Cowboys' 7-foot center.
Travieso will not only have to keep Rutherford from getting open outside shots on transition, but he also will have to contend with chasing Rutherford around the huge picks set by Reeves.
In three tournament games, opposing guards have made only 32.4% of their shots against the Minutemen. Tulsa's backcourt made only eight of 34 shots against UMass, including a six-for-16 effort from Shea Seals.
To stop Reeves, UMass will rely on the combination of senior Lou Roe and sophomore Marcus Camby, who had 20 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots against Tulsa.
"I know that they will try to be physical against us, but I will try to use my quickness to get an advantage," Camby said. "Like I did against Tulsa."
Roe has a different perspective in guarding Reeves.
"He's such a big boy that you really can't try to muscle him," Roe said. "Hopefully, I won't have to cover him too much, but if he catches the ball close enough to the basket and I'm on him . . . that's when I'll get a little scared."
UMass has been on a defensive roll. The Minutemen have not allowed an opponent to score more than 57 points in their last 10 games and in the tournament have kept opponents to 33.1% shooting while averaging 9.7 steals.
"Playing aggressive defense has been our staple all season and we are not about to change now," said Kellogg, whose assist-to-turnover ratio in the tournament is four-to-one. "Getting into foul trouble is not something we worry about. We may have lost some players, but we have others who can step up and get the job done on defense."
Other than Rutherford and Reeves, who is averaging 21.4 points and 9.5 rebounds, Oklahoma State does not have many weapons to throw at UMass. So, don't look for the Cowboys to alter their style.
"We're going to use our same game plan and that is for Rutherford to come off screens and for us to move the ball around," Oklahoma State Coach Eddie Sutton said. "Rutherford has seen every defense imaginable this season from a triangle and two and a box and one to even triple teams. But against UMass, we may need some extra players to step forward and play big."