Backcourt competition heating up with UMass basketball three weeks from opener

Minutemen boast loaded group of guards


Katherine Mayo/Collegian

By Amin Touri, Sports Editor

With the 2018-19 season tipping off in just three weeks, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team is flashing real depth and competition at the most important position in the game.

UMass hosts Westfield State for an exhibition game on Oct. 30 before UMass Lowell visits for the season opener on Nov. 6. The Minutemen have been practicing daily since mid-August, and the chance to put that work on display is getting closer and closer.

“It’s come fast – it’s kind of unbelievable,” said sophomore guard Carl Pierre. “Feels like just yesterday it was summertime, lifting weights heavy or just doing individuals, but I’m really excited to get on the floor with the new guys this year and just compete again.”

Pierre is part of an impressive stable of guards that could see significant playing time this season, having played a majority of the minutes next to Second Team All-Conference guard Luwane Pipkins. Unique McLean returns as one of the conference’s best athletes, and with transfers Curtis Cobb and Keon Clergeot being thrown into the mix with freshman Tre Wood joining the program as well, minutes will be hard to come by.

“It’s been good. You got myself, Keon, Tre, you got Curtis in the backcourt as well. It’s been a lot of competitiveness. Even been a couple fights,” Pipkins said with a laugh. “But at the end of the day, we got the same mission on our hands: We want to go to the NCAA, win a conference – all that competitiveness hopefully it pays off on the court.

“We’re competing more than last year obviously, since we’ve got more bodies,” he continued. “We’ve competed every day since practice started and all of that, hopefully it pays off.”

Practice has been hugely competitive with so many guards vying for so few minutes, and while McCall is enjoying the fire in practice this week after having so few bodies last winter, the players are enjoying it even more.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Pierre said. “In practice, you’ve got to bring your A-game every day, because someone’s going to be coming at you. It’s been really fun to compete like that in practice.”

Pierre developed a reputation as one of the Atlantic 10’s best 3-point shooters last season, hitting triples at a 47.2 percent clip last year, the highest in the A-10 by a solid margin.

Pipkins remains the real star of the bunch, having tied for the scoring title last season with A-10 Co-Player of the Year Peyton Aldridge in a massive breakout campaign. Pipkins averaged 21.2 points per game last season, including a 44-point outburst against La Salle in January, en route to an A-10 Most Improved Player award,

Cobb and Clergeot should see significant minutes this season, and each bring their own dimension to the Minutemen — Cobb comes to UMass with the ability to create his own shot and score off the bounce, while Clergeot can take some of the ball-handling pressure off of Pipkins.

“There’s a lot of pressure getting taken off of me,” Pipkins said. “I want teams to double now. Just double me now, and see what happens. It’s a lot of weapons we got – we’ve got a lot of frontcourt players, great size now. Just try to double me this year. I don’t know, just try to double me.”

McLean’s athleticism remains his biggest advantage — his alley-oop slam against Dayton was one of last year’s biggest highlights — and Wood’s ball-handling and quickness could be a real change of pace whenever he sees the floor.

With six guys and two spots to fill, McCall will have a lot of decisions to make in the backcourt, but he doesn’t mind the options, and he sure doesn’t mind the competition they’ve brought to the practice floor.

“No question, that is a positive,” McCall said. “We’ve got an extremely competitive group, led by Pipkins and Pierre, those two guys and what they went through last year understanding and knowing, ‘Hey listen, we want to win…’ The playing hard piece is there. Now we got to get better at the execution piece, taking care of the basketball, executing our offense and utilizing each other.

“If I had a concern right now, it’d be in practice our turnovers, and at times our shot selection,” McCall continued. “We’ve got to get better at utilizing each other and making the game easier for each other.”

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