Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Talented Providence backcourt serves as big test for UMass Friday night

Diallo, Reeves lead Friars

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Talented Providence backcourt serves as big test for UMass Friday night

(Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian)

(Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian)

(Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian)

(Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian)

By Amin Touri, Sports Editor

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Things aren’t getting an easier.

Just a few days removed from a tough home loss to Holy Cross on Tuesday, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team heads to Providence on Friday night, taking on arguably the best backcourt they’ll see all season.

The three-headed monster of Alpha Diallo, A.J. Reeves and David Duke poses all sorts of problems for the Minutemen (5-4), as the trio boast size, athleticism and shooting in spades.

“They’ve got a lot of weapons, they’ve got a lot of size, they’ve got a lot of athleticism,” said UMass coach Matt McCall. “I think that they’re similar to last year in the sense of their size, but I think they’re much faster, I think they’re much physical than they were last year. We were able to get by them off the bounce a bunch in the game, but they’re just more athletic and faster than they were last year.”

UMass got the better of Providence (7-2) in Amherst last season against a very different Friars team — Diallo was out injured last year, and Reeves and Duke, Ed Cooley’s standout freshmen, were yet to arrive.

Diallo’s been especially excellent this season, scoring nearly 17 points a game, while Reeves has added another 15 a night with some lights-out shooting, hitting from 3-point land at a 46.9 percent clip.

Each has had their own big breakout nights — Diallo dropped 27 against Wichita State, Reeves had 29 against Siena on opening night and another 24 against Boston College on Tuesday, Duke pumped in 20 against South Carolina — and they each bring a size advantage, with the 6-foot-5 Duke the smallest of the three.

With all that talent and size, the backcourt matchups are everything — for Matt McCall and the Minutemen, it’s about matching size with speed.

“With our smaller guards we’ve got to try and get our speed into the game, especially Tre [Wood] and [Luwane Pipkins]. I think in second halves of games I need to try and keep both those guys on the floor together a little bit to keep Pip off the ball, just to get us some more speed out there on the floor.”

Wood and Pipkins both give up plenty of size — their 6-foot-1 and 5-foot-11 listings are both a bit generous — but can use their top-tier acceleration and speed to get by defenders and into space.

It’s a big challenge, particularly for the freshman, but McCall’s just playing to his own strengths.

“I thought Tre had a good practice today, I think he’s ready to play tomorrow, but you’ve got to try to get your speed into the game when they’re that big,” McCall said. We’ve got to be ready for zone, we’ve got to be ready for a 1-2-2 press, so our guards need to really, really try and get in the lane and find guys and see if we can get easy baskets that way.”

Wood’s speed and Pipkins’ playmaking can sustain UMass offensively, but how the Minutemen will defend Cooley’s big weapons is the real key. It’ll be a long night for Curtis Cobb, who will likely draw Diallo as his assignment, and Keon Clergeot might see extra time to shore things up defensively.

“No plan, just got to defend, box out,” Pipkins said. “Diallo’s a physical player, he’s their best player, so we’ve just got to contain him and take care of the rest as we go.”

Clergeot’s contributions may also increase with the frustrating few weeks that Carl Pierre has had, as Pierre had just two points against Holy Cross and is shooting just 36 percent from deep this season, well below the 47 percent mark he was hitting at last season.

“I think Carl’s just go to continue to shoot aggressive reps,” McCall said. “Me and him talked a lot going into this year just about expectations and there’s going to be times where he doesn’t play well or doesn’t shoot the ball well, and can you impact the game in other ways when that’s not going on.

“I don’t worry about Carl one bit, because of his character, because of how hard he works — he’s going to bust through, and he’s going to make six or seven in a game. As long as he’s shooting good, aggressive reps, we’ll get him going.”

If he can break out of his slump, Pierre can complete McCall’s terrific trio of his own; Diallo, Reeves and Duke are excellent, but Pipkins, Pierre and Cobb — with a little help from Wood and Clergeot — can put up a fight.

UMass and Providence tip off at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center at 7 p.m.

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

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