Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Frontcourt flexibility poised as Matt McCall’s newest weapon with season fast approaching

Minutemen boast versatile forwards

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Frontcourt flexibility poised as Matt McCall’s newest weapon with season fast approaching

By Amin Touri, Sports Editor

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If the Massachusetts men’s basketball team lacked anything in 2017-18, it was depth and versatility, particularly in the frontcourt.

With Rashaan Holloway back, transfer Jonathan Laurent eligible to play and freshmen Sy Chatman and Samba Diallo thrown in the mix, last season’s concerns at forward have all but evaporated.

“I feel like we’ve just got a lot of athleticism, and we have it all in every category,” Chatman said after Monday’s practice. “Rashaan in the post, he’s just a monster, and we’ve got speed, quickness, we’ve got people that can shoot, so I feel like we’ve got a lot pieces in the frontcourt.”

Holloway’s post presence is well-documented, but the rest of the UMass frontcourt is new, and they’re exactly the sort of players Matt McCall covets — long, versatile, switchable forwards who can both defend and bring something offensively.

Laurent, a transfer from Rutgers who redshirted last season, will probably see a majority of the minutes at the four next to Holloway this season. Listed at 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, Laurent fills a role that McCall didn’t have for most of last season, particularly after Chris Baldwin went down with a quad injury in early February.

Laurent describes himself as “a good passer, I can keep us in the offense. I play hard, look for my opportunities to score, shoot it when I can and just bring a whole versatile vibe to the team.”

Chatman and Diallo, two-thirds of McCall’s first real recruiting class, have been learning on the fly from Laurent and Holloway — particularly the former, who fits their mold a little closer.

“I try to help them as best I can,” Laurent said. “Teach them what I know, whatever they listen to they take. I’m just trying to get them better, give them the ins and outs of college basketball from my experience.”

The Minutemen host Westfield State in an exhibition on Tuesday night, and with Holloway questionable — McCall is being extra careful with the big man’s hamstring — the lineup flexibility that McCall’s referenced all fall will finally be on display.

“Those guys are going to be in there together a lot. Laurent and Chatman, [Diallo] and Chatman, [Holloway] and Laurent,” McCall said. “Then we can go small and play Laurent and [Diallo] together in the frontcourt, with Kieran Hayward or Curtis Cobb or one of those guys.”

Laurent and Chatman, Diallo and Laurent, Chatman and Holloway — the possibilities are endless. Holloway’s role is pretty clearly defined — he’s not popping out to the wing any time soon — but the rest of the frontcourt can each play two or three different positions and could perhaps guard all five, a huge bump in versatility from last year’s iteration.

“We’ve got a lot of surprises. We’ve got a lot of lineups and some surprises, especially when Djery [Baptiste] comes in. I’m pretty comfortable moving out to the wing if we need to, if we decide to play zone and get bigger, we can put Sy on the wing or me on the wing and bring someone into the middle, just helps our flexibility and versatility.”

Therein lies the frontcourt’s X-factor: transfer Djery Baptiste, who will join the team in December after finishing his degree at Vanderbilt. His name comes up in every post-practice interview — Laurent mentioned Baptiste on Monday, Chatman mentioned him last week, McCall’s referenced him on four separate occasions in the last three weeks — and the Minutemen seem extremely excited to bring him in at the start of A-10 play.

Baptiste, a 6-foot-10 forward originally hailing from Haiti, brings size, versatility and depth to the roster — exactly what McCall is looking for.

“We’ve got another one coming,” McCall said. “I feel good about our depth.

“Obviously knock on wood, hopefully we can stay healthy here, but we’ve got eight games in 22 days to start the season, which is a lot. We’re going to need everybody, we’re going to need all those guys up front. We’re going to need Khalea [Turner-Morris], we’re going to need Rashaan, we’re going to need Chatman and Laurent, we’ll need Samba Diallo and Kieran Hayward at times, we’re going to need all those guys.”

We won’t see Baptiste for another few weeks, but for Laurent, Chatman and Diallo, the first opportunity to put on a real UMass jersey and play in front of a real crowd comes on Tuesday.

“I can’t wait,” Chatman said. “I’m a little nervous, but I’m just ready to play. Got some family coming and all that, so I’m pretty excited.”

The Minutemen tip off against Westfield State at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

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

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