Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Cyr: Expectations for UMass men’s basketball remain consistent throughout 2016-17 season

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Imogen Fairs/Collegian

(Imogen Fairs/Collegian)

It’s been nothing short of a roller coaster ride through the first 20 games of the 2016-17 season for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team.

While there have been flashes of excellence for stretches that has given UMass (12-8, 2-5 Atlantic 10) a glimpse of what’s to come for its future with its talented young core, the final product is still far from completion.

Saturday’s 71-68 last-minute loss against Fordham will certainly be one the Minutemen look back on as one that got away. But when looking at the season as a whole, isn’t this what was expected of UMass?

Talented, yes. However, the growing pains, turnovers, experiments with different lineups, shot selection and lack of execution has unsurprisingly plagued the Minutemen with about two-thirds of the season in the rearview mirror.

“I think Luwane [Pipkins], [DeJon Jarreau] and Brison [Gresham] have gotten more of an opportunity and are doing pretty well,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said after the loss to Fordham. “I’m not sure exactly what the learning curve is supposed to be, but if they learn how to win and make winning plays in those stretch runs, I think their curve has been great.”

“Chris [Baldwin] and Ty [Flowers] haven’t played quite as much to continue to make those strides, just because it’s league play. A lot of teams in our league play, a 6-5 four-man or a stretch four, which they’re still figuring out how to cover.”

“[Jarreau] had three pretty good passes to Brison and then it was kind of there, not there. [Jarreau] turned it over on that one when the game was kind of in the guts. They were out there for a couple of those long rebounds we didn’t get.”

“I do think they’re improving,” Kellogg said.

In addition to the freshmen, the Minutemen’s returning role players and Zach Lewis, have all fairly stayed the course.

Rashaan Holloway has taken a significant—and expected—step forward and has emerged as one of the top big men in the conference. In A-10 play, Holloway has seen his production improve to 15.3 points per game and ranks sixth in the conference with 7.9 rebounds.

C.J. Anderson and Lewis have been the go-to guards off the bench for Kellogg and both average over 20 minutes per game. Malik Hines has also taken another step forward on both ends of the floor while Seth Berger, in a limited role, continues to do things that don’t translate to tangible statistics.

Donte Clark has struggled as of late, but returned to form with 17 points against the Rams. Prior to the Fordham game, Clark had scored double-digit points in three of the Minutemen’s last four games in A-10 play.

“We’ve had a couple of those games so hopefully we make a change instead of trying to think back on what we could have done,” Clark said when asked if this was a game the Minutemen will think back on as one that slipped away.

With the Minutemen projected to finish 10th in the conference in the preseason polls, and after Sunday’s slate of games are tied with Duquesne for the second-worst conference record. UMass visits last-place Saint Louis on Wednesday and hosts George Mason Saturday.

In a conference like the A-10, veteran play usually prevails more than it does in the Power 5 schools where high-caliber, one-and-done, NBA-bound freshmen can steal the show.

This team is different than the one’s Kellogg has recently coached. Over the past four years, he’s had senior leadership and presence that have been the focal point of his teams. From Chaz Williams to Cady Lalanne to Trey Davis, each of the past three seasons has featured a dominant senior that’s been the catalyst when things aren’t going as planned.

This year, it’s been more of a collective effort. Different players on different nights have stepped up and contributed in ways they never have done before.

Entering this year, not many expected a return to the NCAA tournament. However, an NIT bid, an achievable goal for this year’s team, is still on the table if the Minutemen can accelerate the pace of their growth and maturity.

While it’s hard to call any season a transition season in college basketball, the 2016-17 version of the Minutemen are doing just that without any seniors on its roster.

UMass is still searching for its ability to finish games more than anything right now. But again, this change was never expected to happen over night.

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

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