UMass basketball prepares to face tallest player in the nation against UCF

By Andrew Cyr

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(Zach Coleman. Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

(Zach Coleman. Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

Massachusetts men’s basketball head coach Derek Kellogg remembers vividly his first encounter with Central Florida center Tacko Fall.

“I’ve watched this kid in AAU ball and the Nike Circuit, and walked by him in the hallway and I’ve never been around anyone that big,” Kellogg said. “This guy’s huge.”

Standing 7-foot-6, 300 pounds, Fall made his way to the United States after growing up in Dakar, Senegal, before the start of his junior year of high school.

Fall was in the national news earlier this season not for his height, but his eligibility status with the NCAA. Despite having a 3.6 GPA in high school, it was unclear if Fall was going to be cleared by the NCAA for eligibility and even threatened to sue had his wish not been granted.

However days before the season started Fall was cleared to play and has since excelled for the Knights (3-3) averaging 10.5 points per game, 6.3 rebounds and blocking a team-leading 17 shots. Fall has started at center for all six of UCF’s games.

“The guy’s huge, he can dunk without jumping. He really affects every aspect of the game. I’m hoping we can get him into some foul trouble and get the game going fast enough where his size isn’t coming into play as much as it possibly can,” Kellogg said. “His averages, if you play him over a 40 minute game, are kind of staggering for a kid who’s a freshman.”

Fall took home Atlantic Athletic Conference Rookie of the Week Honors this past week which included a 23-point, 11-rebound performance against Stetson in a 94-85 win for the Knights.

UMass (5-2) point guard Jabarie Hinds said going up against someone Fall’s size is something that he’s never seen before.

“Nah, I never even seen anyone 7-foot-6 in my life, honestly. It’s crazy,” Hinds said.

Fall anchors the middle of the UCF defense as it primarily features a 2-3 zone that has held opponents to an average of 68.7 points per game. Kellogg said that he expects the Knights to primarily play zone against the Minutemen, especially after they scored a season-low 64 points against Ole Miss’ zone Saturday.

Kellogg said that because of Fall’s size on the back end of UCF’s zone, the Knights are able to gamble more on defense and try a variety of different things to slow down opposing offenses.

“He’s tall and he appears thin but the kid is powerful, like 300 pounds I think. You really just have to use your body, got to try to outrun him, got to out-physical him. I think the important job for us is to be physical, make plays at the right time and get rebounds to help our guards out,” Tyler Bergantino said.

Kellogg said that Bergantino, along with freshmen Rashaan Holloway and Malik Hines, will take turns guarding Fall and plans on giving him as many different looks as possible when UMass is on defense.

Although Kellogg had nothing but praise for Fall, like any other freshman he’s still learning the style and tempo of playing college basketball, much like his own frontcourt of Holloway and Hines.

“He’s still learning how to play at the college level obviously being six games in for them. I think he’s still learning positioning, and how the refs are calling the game and things of that nature,” Kellogg said.

Kellogg added: “I’d say his best attribute is on the defensive end of the floor in the middle of that zone and just staying big and blocking shots. But if you can get to the rim, quite frequently he’s out of position because he’s trying to block everything and that should be an opportunity for the other guys to clean up and get some easy ones.”

While no one on the Minutemen roster stands above 6-feet-11, in preparation for Fall they had Zach Turcotte (6-foot-7) stand on top of a one-foot box to simulate the size and presence of the Knight’s center.

“He kind of just had to stand there because I didn’t want him to fall on anyone or get hurt,” Kellogg said with a laugh. “He was moving pretty good though for a four-foot square.”

Andrew Cyr can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Andrew_Cyr.