Chiarelli: UMass basketball running out of time to find its identity

By Mark Chiarelli

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Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Nearing the end of his press conference Sunday, Derek Kellogg re-arrived at a conclusion.

After politely answering a number of questions about how Jabarie Hinds’ addition into the lineup or the lackluster crowd at the MassMutual Center may have affected his team in its 84-75 loss to Florida Gulf Coast, the Massachusetts men’s basketball coach stopped.

“You know what, all that stuff’s great,” a tired Kellogg said, motioning with his hands as if he was putting an end to everything.

“We have to get our identity of UMass basketball,” he continued. “That’s really what it is. We’re coming at you for 40 minutes with a little bit of toughness and roughness. We’re working toward that and we’re not quite there yet.”

Simple as that, really.

Only if it was actually that simple, the Minutemen wouldn’t be losers of their last three and Kellogg wouldn’t need to remind the media – and presumably his team – what its identity needs to be.

If UMass’ problems were a final exam in a class – timely, I know – they’d be a multiple choice test. Theoretically, every correct answer is right on the page, awaiting its selection. But the path to that perfect grade, or at least an acceptable grade, is a winding, ambiguous road.

The Minutemen have talented pieces, the type of parts that, if constructed correctly, could create a formidable machine. An identity worth acknowledging.

Let’s start with the good.

There’s Cady Lalanne, UMass’ senior center averaging 14.3 points and 9.9 rebounds in 29 minutes per game.

There’s his low-post counterpart Maxie Esho, who is averaging 13 points and six rebounds while shooting 53 percent from the floor. Reserve guard Donte Clark scored 25 points against FGCU and is averaging 9.3 points per game off the bench. Derrick Gordon still customarily fills up the stat sheet.

But there’s also a lot of bad.

There’s Lalanne, who is averaging 2.8 turnovers and continues to struggle when the opposition double-teams him. There’s Esho, who had a plus-minus rating of minus-19 against Florida Gulf Coast. That Clark is the only somewhat reliable option off the bench speaks volumes about the up-and-down nature of UMass this season.

There’s also the shaky point guard play. Trey Davis is shooting 36 percent from the field and 30 percent on 3-pointers, numbers significantly down from his 39.5 and 37 percent marks, respectively, a season ago. Jabarie Hinds has scored four total points in 28 combined minutes in losses against the Eagles and Louisiana State.

Combine those together and it presents a Minutemen team struggling to stay afloat.

The Minutemen have lost three games in a row for the first time since February 2013. The offense is inefficient, the defense not firing at a level Kellogg is happy with. It’s a confluence of struggles and inconsistency leading to a team that, well, is struggling and inconsistent.

Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Now, there’s talk of an identity crisis and lack of toughness, questions regarding energy and who wants to win. Now, there’s a sense of doubt creeping into the collective mind of a team which not long ago believed it was among the upper echelon throughout the nation.

“Everybody needs to look in the mirror,” Lalanne said following the loss to FGCU.

“We need to find our identity, find out what we do and what type of team we are. I think we’re still working a lot to try and fix everything on defense that we’re struggling with.”

During its losing streak, UMass is allowing opponents to shoot 49.5 percent and has given up 84, 82 and 75 points. But according to Kellogg, the path to success may not lie completely in the score sheet.

It’s the lack of hustle and the lack of toughness that’s bothering Kellogg. It’s the lack of “50/50 ball” possession and the lack of competitive spirit. It’s the fact that opposing coaches are no longer complimenting him on the ferocious level of which his team is playing.

“They’re not saying that right this second,” Kellogg said. “That’s something we have to get back to.”

For Kellogg and the rest of the Minutemen, it’s back to the drawing board as Canisius awaits UMass Saturday at 4 p.m. It’s another round of physical practices, another week of trying to tighten up half-court defense and cleaning up shot selection.

If all goes according to plan, UMass fans will see a team playing at a faster pace. One that terrorizes its opposition on defense and does enough to get by on offense. A team that wins because it works for it. That isn’t that team now, but according to Kellogg, it can be.

Yet much like an exam, the season won’t last forever. Sustained success is the goal for UMass and it’s running out of time to put a dent in its non-conference schedule. The games in December are the potential deciding factor for the NCAA tournament selection committee come March.

For the Minutemen, it’s time to find the answers.

“It’s an attitude thing,” Kellogg said. “I’m looking for guys that carry themselves with a little more energy and pop when we’re around. A little more alert, to a certain extent. I think if we get that attitude, some of the other stuff will come a little bit easier.”

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.