Touri: Taking stock of UMass’ situation at center

Holloway, Chatman, Turner-Morris vying for minutes

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(Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian)

By Amin Touri, Sports Editor

Strangely, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s 23-point loss to No. 6 Nevada on Friday was arguably the team’s most encouraging performance of the season.

The scoreline wasn’t as indicative of UMass’ performance as it was of the reality of what happens when a team as good as Nevada plays extremely well, like the Wolf Pack did on Friday. When players as good as Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline are on their game, there’s nothing really to be done.

But for a long stretch, the Minutemen hung with one of the best teams in the country, and ran with them pretty well in an up-tempo affair. And while the performance provides plenty of reason for optimism, particularly on the perimeter — Luwane Pipkins remains incredible, Carl Pierre and Curtis Cobb are great secondary scoring options and Jonathan Laurent’s versatility has been as advertised and better — it also exposed some concerns down low.

Let’s establish something right away: Rashaan Holloway is who he is. His struggles with his conditioning are well documented, and he’ll never be a 250-pound center who can play 31 minutes and consistently run the floor in an up-tempo game like Friday’s. That said, he’s still extremely valuable in spurts and in certain matchups, because his sheer size and his impressive footwork and touch around the basket can make him a defensive nightmare.

When Holloway is dominant, there’s no one in the Atlantic 10 — and very few big men in the country — that approach what he does. Teams simply have to account for him. His presence as a rim-protector and as a rebounder, particularly on the offensive glass, complement his offensive contributions as he forces double-teams in the paint. His passing in those situations has also improved, as those double-teams leave shooters open, and he’s found them with better success than he did a year ago.

But on Friday, up against a run-and-gun team like Nevada with hyper-athletic bigs and wings like Caleb and Cody Martin or Caroline, Holloway really struggled. He finished with five points and five rebounds, but was whistled for four personal fouls in just eight minutes, by far his shortest stint of the season and less than half his season average. Nevada kept on running, and Holloway couldn’t deal with it.

So it begs the question: what does Matt McCall do down low?

Freshman Sy Chatman has taken a bulk of the backup center minutes, and while I’ve been impressed with the young big man, he’s exactly that: a young big man. He’s a freak athlete with immense talent, and I firmly believe he’s going to be one of the best fives in the conference one day.

His offense is coming along, and his athleticism shines night after night with skying rebounds and volleyball blocks, as the kid is a walking highlight reel. But he’s still growing and still developing. Chatman turned 18 over the summer, and while that suggests he’s got a ton of room to grow, it also means he gets worked physically on the block sometimes. Trey Porter backed Chatman down early in the first half, bowled him over and threw down an emphatic dunk, before spinning right past Chatman for another huge dunk early in the second half as well.

As he gets bigger and stronger, that won’t happen to Chatman. But for right now, when A-10 play starts and he has to defend guys like Hasahn French, Josh Cunningham and Grant Golden, he might run into problems.

Khalea Turner-Morris gave McCall some pretty solid minutes at points against Nevada, and he’ll probably see more time than he did in the first few weeks when he was hampered by some injury trouble. Turner-Morris has the size and physical presence that Chatman might lack, but doesn’t have the same bounce or defensive instincts. He can bang in the post with many, but if he steps outside like he was forced to against Nevada a couple of times, he can get himself into trouble.

The one name I’m leaving out is Samba Diallo, who I don’t think will get many minutes at center, and spends more time backing up Laurent at the four. It does happen — he was ostensibly the center when McCall went really small late in the second half — but it will probably be rare.

I think it’s important for me to acknowledge that the biggest reason UMass’ big men struggled as much as they did against Nevada was they were playing against Nevada. The Wolf Pack are by far the best team the Minutemen will see all year, and even the best A-10 teams don’t compare.

But great teams expose weaknesses, and the center spot comes with the most uncertainty in McCall’s lineup. Pipkins is an A-10 Player of the Year candidate, Pierre may be the A-10’s best shooter, I firmly believe Cobb will only get better as the year goes along and Laurent is the glue guy McCall needs in the frontcourt. If he figures out the final piece, it all may come together.

So what’s the answer? Truthfully, it’s too early to say. I think it’s possible to chalk up Holloway’s Friday struggles to a combination of a super up-tempo game on a back-to-back, which won’t happen in A-10 play — it is however, something that’ll come up come tournament time.

Maybe Chatman develops quicker than I expect and he’s able to hold his own on the block, and maybe Turner-Morris makes a jump this season. One way or the other, that position may make or break this team.Then again, maybe there’s a 6-foot-10, 240-pound transfer with experience and an SEC pedigree that answers all the questions. Maybe Djery Baptiste enters the fold and makes the whole point moot by February.

But for now, the question marks remain.

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