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Winning in practice meant winning the starting job for UMass men’s basketball’s ‘red team’

(Jong Man Kim/ Daily Collegian)

With few changes to the starting lineup being made here and there, the starting five for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team has been for the most part consistent for much of 2016-17 season. That was until Sunday when UMass coach Derek Kellogg decided to switch everything up.

C.J. Anderson, Zach Lewis, Ty Flowers, Brison Gresham and Malik Hines – otherwise known as the “red team” – took to the floor Sunday to start the game against La Salle. The move proved to be a positive one: Lewis scored a career-high 37 points and Gresham, who logged 23 minutes, led the Minutemen (14-15, 4-12 Atlantic 10) with six rebounds – five off of the offensive glass.

These five are not a randomly clumped together squad; rather they have been practicing together for much of the season.

“It felt good, I can’t lie about that,” Anderson said. “Honestly, filling in that starting position and knowing you earned it, you deserve it and it’s always as simple as that. The group I’ve been playing with, we always work hard every time we come into the gym.”

At this point in the regular season with two games remaining against Richmond and St. Bonaventure before everyone heads to Pittsburgh for the A-10 tournament, UMass pretty much knows where it stands in the conference. They will be amongst the bottom four teams playing on the first day of the tournament – Wednesday, March 8.

Kellogg hopes this new sense of competition sparks his team just at the right time ahead of the conference tournament.

“That was kind of the plan. Let’s mix it up a little bit,” Kellogg said of the lineup change sparking his team. “Those guys have worked really hard in practice and quite honestly they have beaten the first team many times in practice. So a little bit of a shakeup, a little bit of re-energizing some different players and maybe getting a spark in a few other guys was kind of the intent of trying that, and it worked so we’re going to try it again and see how it goes.”

While the “red team” got its first start as a group Sunday, it was not the first start of the season for all of the five individually. Gresham had made a decent amount of starts at power forward at the beginning of conference play but had been switched out in favor of veteran forward, Seth Berger.

“Definitely, it kind of makes you play harder,” Gresham said. “Starting, you are kind of out there relaxed and coming off the bench you aren’t, you’re just trying to get out there.”

Gresham demonstrated his ability to block a shot and get open in the paint, however his success has come at a slow pace in his freshman season. According to Gresham, much of it is adapting to the pace of college basketball. Practicing with Hines, a sophomore center, has helped move Gresham along.

“He’s definitely been showing me, like just see what you got,” Gresham said. “Don’t try to go into a play doing too much, see what you’re working with at first. He’s definitely been a big help to me.”

Starting an alternative lineup benefits not only those of the “red team” but also those who have typically started and now may be coming off the bench. Kellogg had mentioned following Sunday’s win that junior forward Donte Clark, despite only scoring one point, played the right way and “within the team.” His efforts may not have been translated well on the stat sheet, but according to Kellogg they ultimately helped the Minutemen secure a strong win.

For Kellogg, the hope is that the likes of DeJon Jarreau, Luwane Pipkins and Flowers will learn that there are “other ways to win a basketball game.”

“I think that is something that we’re still learning,” Kellogg said. “I think a lot of the guys are still learning that there are different ways to win a basketball game. Flowers had five rebounds, but maybe in years past he might have thought that only scoring and shooting 3s would help you win. But those rebounds were important.”

With only two games left in the regular season, Kellogg plans on continuing to start whatever team essentially wins practice. UMass’ next game will be its final one at the Mullins Center this season and will tip-off Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Philip Sanzo can be reached at psanzo@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Philip_Sanzo.

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