UMass men’s basketball prepares for transitional season in 2017-18

By Amin Touri

(Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian)

The 2017-18 Massachusetts men’s basketball team looks nothing like the 2016-17 version.

It’s been a whirlwind few months for the Minutemen, from Derek Kellogg’s firing in March, to the hiring of Pat Kelsey and his sudden change of heart, to Matt McCall’s eventual hiring and the flurry of transfers in and out of the program that followed, leaving very little continuity or familiarity to be found.

The biggest change is at the very top, with McCall preparing for his first season at the helm at UMass, following two seasons as head coach at Chattanooga. The reviews from his players thus far have been all positive.

“He’s a good dude,” sophomore guard Luwane Pipkins said, “He’s a great coach, he knows what he’s talking about. At the end of the day he just wants to get us to play hard, because we’re low on bodies right now, so we’ve go to play hard, play fast and outlast our opponents.”

“He straight, he’s alright,” junior forward Malik Hines said. “He’s laid-back, chill, but he keeps us working, which is cool; he tries to keep our main focus where it needs to be and I like that about him. He says he wants to instill a winning culture, and we all want that, and he’s just keeping us working. We’re working hard, we’re always doing something, we’ve always got a basketball in our hands; he keeps us busy and I like that about him.”

McCall is stepping into an uncertain situation in Amherst, having been on the wrong end of seven transfers in the spring, and the Minutemen will most harshly feel the effects of those departures on the offensive end. Three of the team’s top five scorers from last season—top scorer Donte Clark, along with Zach Lewis and DeJon Jarreau—left the school after Kellogg’s termination, and replacing that scoring, particularly in the backcourt, is crucial to McCall’s first act.

The frontcourt, however, is where the Minutemen still flash some strength. Junior Rashaan Holloway is the big man underneath, returning as the team’s second-leading scorer from last season, and he’s flanked by Hines and sophomore Chris Baldwin to form a talented triumvirate in the post.

“Well obviously I think you’ve got a tremendous frontcourt,” McCall said. “Between Holloway, Hines and Baldwin, and sliding C.J. Anderson there at times, that’s a pretty good frontcourt. Got a [6-foot-10] freshman in Khalea Turner-Morris there as well.”

Anderson is the lone senior on a very young team, and if early indications are to be trusted, he’ll play a key role in the UMass offense. Two games into the season, Anderson has facilitated much of the offense along with Pipkins, scoring 12 points against Harvard in Sunday’s 70-67 overtime loss.

Anderson and Pipkins will often be the starting backcourt when the Minutemen go big—with Baldwin, Holloway and Hines—but Anderson will often move to small forward to open up space for another guard if they go small, with high-flying redshirt freshman Unique McLean being the most likely candidate to join Pipkins in other guard spot.

Guys like freshman Carl Pierre, a late recruit to the program, and junior Rayshawn Miller could step up and help add depth at the two guard positions.

“We’re thin in the back court but we’ve got some experience with Pipkins,” McCall said. “Pierre is going to be a guy that fans are going to enjoy watching over the next four years. But I think our biggest strength is going to be our size up front, we’ve got to use that to our advantage, on both ends of the floor.”

In a year with so much change and so much uncertainty, McCall’s biggest concern is keeping his team from getting consumed by wins and losses, and focusing on themselves.

“Just get better every single day,” he said of the team’s goals this year. “To not let a single day go to waste, go by without us improving and constantly confronting that. The results will take care of themselves, if we can focus on that.

“Stay together. Don’t turn on each other, stay connected, everybody’s got to improve. Not just the guys that are playing—the guys that are sitting out, those guys got to take a huge jump and get better every single day.”

This season serves as a chance to lay a foundation for the future—“building a mansion,” as McCall puts it—and that starts with a single-minded focus on what’s next.

“My goal for this team,” Anderson said, “is to put us back on the map. It’s literally that simple. Me being a leader, it starts with me, but everybody’s a leader on this team, I’ve been preaching that to everyone on this squad.

“We’re going to need everybody to play, everybody to be ready. My goal is to come out every game ready to play, we’re not looking far ahead, we’re just looking at the game that’s coming up next. Whoever’s on the schedule next, that’s what we’re worried about.”

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