When starting shooting guard Jesse Morgan went down for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee on Jan. 10 at Saint Louis, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s season took a major turn.
Not only did the Minutemen lose their second leading scorer at the time and, arguably, their best perimeter defender as well, but they also lost perhaps their best 3-point shooter, a part of the offense that has become the team’s staple in recent years.
Immediately, UMass coach Derek Kellogg and his staff knew that something needed to be changed. With only three healthy guards eligible, including inexperienced freshman Trey Davis left as the only one coming off the bench, a shift in the game plan was a necessity.
Enter: Cady Lalanne, Sampson Carter and a stronger emphasis on pounding the post.
A few months ago, I wrote in this space that the Minutemen sorely lacked an inside presence after Lalanne had a poor outing against Miami (Fla.). I also wrote that shooting the 3-pointer was in UMass’ DNA, and the lack of an option in the paint was exposing the flaws of shooting the 3-ball as often as they were.
But in Sunday’s 70-65 victory against Richmond at the Mullins Center, none of that held water. Instead, an honest team effort to feed the hands of big bodies down in the post was the difference in what was one of the biggest wins of the year for UMass.
With a clear size advantage down low, the Minutemen finished with 38 points in the paint as they looked like a team much more reliant on pounding the ball than shooting the 3-pointer.
“We were playing a little bit differently and a little bigger,” Kellogg said. “We threw the ball inside probably as much as we had really since I’ve been here as a coach.”
Given the drastic change in personnel since Morgan’s injury, it was really only a matter of time.
Working with three guards over the course of the game, as well as dealing with Raphiael Putney and Terrell Vinson’s foul trouble, Kellogg was forced to use big lineups that included Maxie Esho, Carter and Lalanne all on the floor at the same time. This naturally led point guard Chaz Williams to look for options in the post rather than beyond the 3-point line.
The biggest beneficiary was Lalanne, who finished with 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting and could have easily had more if he didn’t miss a few point-blank attempts.
Regardless of those misses, though, his presence was strong as he anchored the Minuteman frontcourt and helped them fight back from a seven-point deficit with six minutes, two seconds left in the game.
“That’s just Cady being Cady,” Williams said. “He’s a big kid, he’s a beast, he’s a monster, so whenever you give him the ball, he just puts his body on people and tries to finish.”
As well as Lalanne played, he wasn’t the only big man getting more looks in the post. Carter, the team’s starting center, finished with 10 points, and scored eight of UMass’ first 12 points as the Minutemen jumped out to a 12-3 advantage in the opening minutes of the first half.
“I felt really good,” Carter said. “My teammates did a good job of getting back to me back-to-back. I just caught a good rhythm early and just stayed with it.
“I don’t think that’s the best I can play though.”
Despite putting more of an emphasis on looking inside, UMass wasn’t shy in dialing it up from long range on Sunday as it finished 3-of-15 from beyond the arc. That kind of inconsistency from 3-point range has plagued the Minutemen all year, as they’ve shot a hair over 30 percent from deep through 18 games.
But unlike before, when that kind of shooting may have spelled defeat, it didn’t matter against Richmond. Kellogg would obviously like more of those 3-pointers to go down, but if the game plan going forward is similar to that of Sunday’s, they may not need to.
“Not too many teams in our league have great bigs as big as Cady or as strong and physical,” Williams said. “So it’s going to be a key part for him to be a part of our team and do the things he can do.”
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.