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Ball movement a focus for UMass men’s basketball heading into opening night

(Caroline O’Connor/Daily Collegian)

Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Matt McCall is all too familiar with small schools upsetting larger universities.

While the coach at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga last year, McCall’s squad had an 82-69 upset over the University of Tennessee on the Volunteers’ home court on the opening night of the season. So, it’s safe to say when UMass Lowell comes to Amherst to take on the flagship university, McCall will not allow his team to take the River Hawks lightly.

“When I was at Chattanooga we were the brother school to Tennessee,” McCall said. “We were the smaller school, and Tennessee was the bigger school. We had them down 20 in the second half and won the game. We have to have an edge to us Friday night.”

While on paper it might look like a lopsided matchup, McCall knows anything can happen once the game begins.

“Who cares what is supposed to happen, anything can happen once the ball is thrown up in the air,” McCall said. “If we don’t have an edge to us and we’re not focused on the right things, we’re going to lose the game. We’ve got to play the game and get lost from competing.”

After the Minutemen’s 82-60 victory in the scrimmage against Springfield last Friday, McCall was unhappy with his team’s ball movement in the first half. He felt the team was stagnant offensively, trying to play too much one-on-one and not having any rhythm.

That changed in the second half, as his team outscored the Pride 44-25. McCall has put an emphasis on ball movement and pushing the pace heading into the game with the River Hawks.

“Anytime there’s a dead ball, anytime there’s a stoppage or even on a made basket we’ll run a set play,” McCall said. “But on a miss, we’re trying to run. Our guys know the areas that they’re supposed to get to on the floor. If we have to get back into our pick and roll continuity after that, we can. But on a miss, we want to run.”

One of the guys tasked with pushing the ball up the court is guard Luwane Pipkins. The sophomore from Chicago started 28 games for UMass as a freshman, and should see extended minutes this season.

Pipkins chalked the poor first half against Springfield up to first game nerves.

“First game back, everybody was getting their feet wet again,” Pipkins said. “People just got a little out of style. The second half we settled down more. We moved the ball and played well.”

In the second half of the scrimmage, Pipkins began to assert himself, using his speed to get to the rim. After scoring over 10 points per game a season ago, the guard is looking to improve on that this year.

“I have to be aggressive for my team right now since we’re low on bodies,” Pipkins said. “I just have to keep being aggressive, keep finding my teammates, keep getting buckets. Once I do that I can open it up for my teammates and let them play their game.”

While the Minutemen want to get out and run, they must also find ways to get center Rashaan Holloway involved. The 6-foot-11 big man presents matchup problems for opponents on a nightly basis, and will be a key cog in the UMass offense.

While it is easy to just feed him the ball throughout the game, McCall wants his team to run its normal offense and allow Holloway to get touches within the flow of the game.

“We can’t get pass-happy staring him down,” McCall said. “He’s going to get it through ball movement, player movement. He’s got to understand that we’re going to find you, we’re going to get you the ball down there.

He added, “But you have to let it happen through the movement and continuity of the offense and not just try to force things inside. If we try to force it, teams are sitting on the white line loading up. That can’t happen. We have to continue to move the ball.”


Thomas Johnston can be reached at and followed on twitter @TJ__Johnston.



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