UMass men’s basketball prepares for season opener Friday against UMass Lowell

By Amin Touri

(Jessica Picard/Daily Collegian)

Seven months after his hire as the 22nd coach of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team, Matt McCall will finally see his team in a game that counts on Friday.

The Minutemen will take on in-state opponent UMass Lowell for the season opener, as fans get to see a new-look UMass team for the first time.

“The time is now,” McCall said, “we can’t blink. We have to be ready to go Friday night because they’ll be ready to go. They’re a team that’s played together, they played four games over the summer already. Got a terrific player in [Jahad] Thomas, have some terrific backcourt players that have played together.”

Thomas led the River Hawks in scoring last season, averaging 18.3 points per game, as they finished the season with an 11-20 record.

“This guy Thomas is a great player,” McCall said, “they have terrific backcourt players around him as well. It starts with them in transition. If you look at their numbers, they’re one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. Top 30 in three-point field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage, offensive efficiency rating top 50, those guys score the ball.

“I’m sure their team and their coach, who’s a terrific coach, have put a lot of emphasis on the defensive end of the floor. They’re going to be a better basketball team than they were last year, no doubt about it. The biggest thing is us playing with an edge,” he added.

The Minutemen are fully expecting to see screen after screen on Friday night, against a Lowell team that likes to use them to open up space on the floor.

“UMass Lowell is coming back with a lot of returners,” said senior guard C.J. Anderson, “a lot of scorers that came back for this year, and I’ve seen that they’ve picked up on their defense. They run a lot of ball screens on offense, so we have to be prepared for that on Friday.”

“[Ball movement] has been a point of emphasis,” said McCall. “We’re going to see a thousand pick-and-rolls on Friday night, and that’s been an emphasis, our pick and roll defense. You would think a team that runs pick and rolls would be really good, but we’re not where we need to be, it’s been a big point of emphasis for us. Keeping the ball moving and keeping the floor moving, that’s something we’ve been working on this week. Getting our full team out there, practicing and competing.”

While McCall is expecting ball screens, he’s been in this business long enough to know how to expect the unexpected.

“I think the biggest thing is knowing there’s going to be surprises,” McCall said. “It’s the first game of the season. Lowell may not run anything that they ran last year. They may run a whole new playbook. You don’t know. We have to continue to focus on ourselves, continue to get better and understand pick and roll coverage and transition defense. If you can get those two things in the game and do a good job in those two areas, your team will probably have some success as long as you take care of the basketball.”

Heading into Friday’s contest, the Minutemen are looking to make improvements from their showing in an exhibition against Springfield College, where they struggled to pull away until the second half.

“We have to score the ball better,” said sophomore guard Luwane Pipkins, “play defense in transition better, if we do those two things I think we’ll be fine.”

“Our defensive principles, staying locked in, staying on our assignments and what coach has us doing,” Anderson said of the team’s focus points heading into Friday. “On offense we need to take better shots. We can get the same shots we take sometimes at the end of the clock, but as long as we share the ball and play together we should be fine.”

Tipoff on the 2017-2018 season is set for 7 p.m. on Friday at the Mullins Center.


Amin Touri can be reaches at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.