UMass men’s basketball prepares for first game Tuesday night

Second year under McCall kicks off against UMass Lowell


(Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian)

By Thomas Haines, Assistant Sports Editor

After nearly eight months of practices, recruitments and speculation, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team will return to the court for a competitive game Tuesday night.

UMass is slated to take on UMass Lowell at the Mullins Center in the first game of the 2018-2019 season.

“It’s been a long time since March,” coach Matt McCall said. “A lot of practices, going back to the summertime. It’s not going to be perfect, we’re going to make mistakes. I have to understand that as a coach, but I just want these guys to go out and play really, really hard. I want them to focus on that, playing hard and focused on when the ball’s not in your hands, impacting the game. Don’t worry about scoring, don’t worry about your offense, just go out and play the game really, really hard.”

The last time UMass walked off the court was Mar. 8 against George Mason in the second round of the Atlantic 10 tournament. The Minutemen finished with a 13-20 record, but only went 5-13 in the A-10 and fell apart down the stretch.

This year’s Minutemen, with a deeper bench, talented transfers and relatively few personnel losses, are expected to exceed that record. That begins against UMass Lowell, the same opening day opponent that UMass has faced the last two years.

Last year, the first under McCall, the Minutemen pulled out a 74-69 win.

“I didn’t think we were prepared for the game,” McCall said. “I didn’t think we were prepared for their toughness, for their physicality. I think when our guys saw that Jahad Thomas wasn’t playing, they took a breath. They thought it was going to be easy, because their quote-unquote best player wasn’t playing. Those guys want to line up and win too, and that’ll be the case tomorrow night.”

Only four players return from that game, and three of them – Luwane Pipkins, Rashaan Holloway and Unique McLean – recorded double-digit points. In his first game with UMass, Carl Pierre scored five points on five shots.

Since then, Pipkins has become one of the top players in the A-10 and Pierre has a solid freshman year under his belt. Holloway, who was coming back from an injury suffered in his sophomore season, is back to full health.

“I had broken my thumb, and UMass Lowell was my first game back,” Holloway said. “It was difficult because I couldn’t run, so the only thing I could do was catch the ball, so when I was catching the ball it was weird. But this year, I’m good… I’ve been scoring, my skillset’s still there. I’ve been doing basketball workouts. So I’m not going to be rusty like that.”

After missing the second half of the season due to academic ineligibility, Holloway is healthy and ready for the season opener and expected to dominate in the paint in his fifth year at UMass. He admits that he’s “still working on conditioning,” but is eager to prove that his skills remain undiminished.

“I’m just ready to show everybody what I can do,” Holloway said. “Everybody knows what I can do, I just need to go out there and prove myself, prove that I got better. Prove that I was missed out there on the court. I’m excited, I’m trying not to get too overwhelmed, I know it’s the same basketball, same thing. I’m not trying to make it about me, just about a new beginning. So I’m out there trying to set new goals.”

With four redshirt transfers and three freshmen making their first appearance for UMass on Tuesday, along with the return of Holloway, the Minutemen will look vastly different than they did against George Mason in March. Along with all that turnover, UMass will likely face some jitters and mistakes early on.

“We’ve gotten better, but again, tomorrow night the lights will be on, so put your focus on making the right play,” McCall said. “We can’t be shell-shocked about how physical they are, we can’t be shell-shocked at how they guard. We’ve got to go out and read defense and make the right play, and let our offense come to us, because if we turn it over, it’s going to be a long night.”

Still, McCall also emphasized the need for the players to appreciate playing again, some of them for the first time in eighteen months.

“Play the game with passion,” McCall said. “Go out there and cut it loose, and have fun. That’s what we want these guys to do, and play as hard as they can.”

Thomas Haines can be reached at [email protected] followed on Twitter @thainessports.