Chiusano: There’s still optimism left for struggling UMass men’s basketball

By Anthony Chiusano

(Alex Zabrecky/Daily Collegian)
(Alex Zabrecky/Daily Collegian)

A win was in sight for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team Saturday afternoon, as the Minutemen looked to put an end to a deflating three-game losing streak.

Somehow, some way UMass battled back from an 11-point first half deficit against one of the conference’s best in Davidson, a team that boasts one of the most dynamic players in the Atlantic 10 in Jack Gibbs.

But shortly after Donte Clark sunk his second straight 3-pointer to hand the Minutemen a two-point lead with four minutes, 16 seconds left in regulation, everything quickly unraveled – yet again.

How long did this momentum shift last for UMass Saturday?

All of 18 seconds as the Wildcats followed on a 14-1 run, led by Gibbs who finished with a career-high 43 points and 14 in the final 3:05, as Davidson escaped with an 86-74 victory.

Sure, Saturday’s game could be seen as progress for a team that struggled to remain competitive deep into the second half of its previous three games. But UMass’ issue of consistently faltering down the stretch within conference matchups still appears inescapable.

Despite a turnover in the roster with the notable absences of 2015 graduates Cady Lalanne and Maxie Esho as well as Seton Hall transferee Derrick Gordon, this year’s Minutemen are on a similar trajectory at this point in its season.

Like last year, UMass opened up this season 5-1, highlighted by a runaway victory over Clemson – the same team that has now rattled off five straight wins including victories over then-No. 9 Duke and No. 22 Louisville.

But since their uplifting start, finding wins has become a struggle as the Minutemen have dipped below.500 at 8-9, including a 1-4 start to conference play. At this juncture last season, UMass stood afloat at 9-8 with a 2-2 A-10 record.

It may be unfair to compare these two vastly different Minutemen teams with very different preseason expectations surrounding them. Unlike a season ago, prospects at returning to the Big Dance this year seemed slim for a team selected to place 10th in the preseason conference poll.

But if this year’s version could remain competitive over the final half of the season and finish close to last year’s 17-15 mark, this rebuilding year has a chance to be deemed a success.

UMass coach Derek Kellogg may not be wrong when he told MassLive’s Dan Malone after Saturday’s loss that by the end of the season, A-10 foes “are not going to want to see our team.”

The Minutemen have proven that they can be a dangerous shooting team, averaging the fifth-highest scoring in the conference (77.2 points per game). And while UMass has hit a bit of a speed bump with its 3-point shooting, the larger issues have mostly been on the defensive side.

Routinely – whether it’s been St. Bonaventure’s Jaylen Adams, George Washington’s Tyler Cavanaugh or Gibbs on Saturday – A-10 teams’ star players and go-to guys have exposed UMass’ defensive problems by breaking the press, attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line.

The Minutemen’s trademark half-court defense has been effective at times, but not nearly as often as Kellogg would like. He talked about the process of getting some of the younger players more comfortable in the high-pressure half-court defense before the year, saying that it’s a learning curve for many out of high school.

In particular, the development of freshmen centers Rashaan Holloway and Malik Hines on both sides of the ball will be interesting to watch over the final 13 games of the regular season.

Holloway more than Hines has had some bright spots – he’s reached double digits twice this season – but there’s still a long way to go for both of them in terms of conditioning and playing up to the speed of the college game.

If this pair can emerge as key contributors in the post down the final stretch of the regular season, UMass won’t have to rely as heavily on the shooting of backcourt mates Trey Davis, Jabarie Hinds and Donte Clark.

If the Minutemen do find greater consistency out of its role players and maintain the same level of intensity throughout the course of a game, UMass has a chance to play spoiler against its conference rivals.

“You just have to stay in it. Stay together and keep your head up. I watched (former UConn stars) Shabazz Napier and Kemba Walker, they were eighth in the conference and came back and won a national championship,” Davis said Saturday. “Those are the things that I look at.”

It’s safe to say this year’s Minutemen don’t have the talent – or magic – of those 2011 and 2014 Huskies, but the idea itself is compelling: No one really ever knows what will happen come conference tournament play.

There’s a lot of excitement surrounding UMass next year when it brings in its top recruiting class of the Kellogg era. But in the interim, the 2015-16 Minutemen have a chance to create further optimism by finishing strong in a season of low expectations.

Anthony Chiusano can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @a_chiusano24.