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Cyr: Don’t expect a return to glory to happen overnight for the UMass men’s basketball team

Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Collegian

Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Collegian

I have a simple message to fans of the Massachusetts men’s basketball as it pertains to the upcoming 2016-17 season:

Give this time.

UMass is going to be good. The instant change in the win-loss column might not come this year and a return trip to the NCAA tournament is almost improbable. Improvement is going to happen eventually, but give the pieces time to fall into place.

The revitalization of the Minutemen’s program started in 2013 when the University of Massachusetts broke ground on its $28.5 million, 53,000-square-foot John Francis Kennedy Champions Center, a practice facility for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams at UMass.

Minutemen coach Derek Kellogg has already used the facility as a recruiting tool to their players, as evident by the top 30 recruiting class UMass had for the 2016 season. Headlined by a pair of four-star recruits and a trio of three-stars, the Champions Center is already starting to bring talent through its doors.

But as good as DeJon Jarreau, Chris Baldwin, Unique McLean, Tyrn Flowers, Brison Gresham and Luwane Pipkins will be for the Minutemen, it’s rare to see freshmen classes instantly change the discourse of programs, especially in conferences like the Atlantic 10.

Pipkins was with UMass last year as an academic non-qualifier, while Gresham is still awaiting NCAA clearance.

“Sometimes I think that everyone collectively – the older guys and coaches at times – need to remember that (they are freshmen),” redshirt junior forward Zach Coleman said. “They do so many good things at times; some days they seem like they have it all figured out, and the next day it seems like they don’t.”

“You do have to pull back and remember that they are only freshman, and that there’s five of them,” Coleman added.

In addition to the returning veterans – Coleman, Seth Berger, Donte Clark, C.J. Anderson, Rashaan Holloway and Malik Hines – UMass welcomes Canisius transfer Zach Lewis, an off-the-ball guard who averaged 11 points per game and made 34.5 percent of his 3-pointers during his two seasons with the Golden Griffins.

“We have five freshmen, five guys who haven’t played any Division I minutes. And other guys who haven’t played with us at all are Luwane Pipkins and Zach Lewis,” Berger said. “Pretty much half our roster is brand new. It’s going to take some time but eventually they will. We’re just sticking with it, the biggest thing for us to do [is] just sticking to it until it all falls into place.”

Holloway is going to be the key to the operation. Kellogg expects, and needs, him to be a reliable scoring option in the low post and for him to have the ability to stay on the court and avoid foul trouble. If Holloway is that guy, expect Kellogg to mix-and-match different small ball lineups to open up space for shooters like Lewis, Pipkins and Flowers.

The Minutemen were picked to finish 10th in the A-10 preseason poll, the lowest since they were projected to finished 12th in 2011-12. Clark, who was second on the team in scoring last year with 16.1 points per game, was tabbed to the preseason third-team all-conference.

So how long before Kellogg will have a set rotation?

“I think with this group it’s going to take a while,” Kellogg said. “Some of the young kids are going to mature at different rates. A guy like Luwane Pipkins might mature a little bit faster than (Tyrn) Flowers, and so (Tyrn) might play a little bit less early, and kind of ease his way in a little later in the season. Chris Baldwin may be a little bit slower to catch up on things than say Rashaan or whoever.”

“There’s definitely a learning curve for each player. But we’d like to have [a rotation] by, a few games into conference or halfway into conference play where it’s all clicking and that’s the team that I think we can be.”

We live in a society where we expect instant change, and satisfaction the second we’ve found a solution. UMass’ fans will be excited with how athletic and up-tempo this year’s team is. There will be some dunks that get people out of their seats and they’ll be stretches when the Minutemen won’t miss from 3. And in the same game, they’ll probably do some things that drive the fans insane too.

Remember, these aren’t the same one-and-done freshmen we see flock to schools like Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky or Kansas year after year. This class is here to stay for a while.

The future is bright for UMass, but don’t expect the return to glory to happen overnight.

Andrew Cyr can be reached at arcyr@umass.edu, and followed on Twitter @Andrew_Cyr.

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