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Touri: Eight things we learned from UMass’ upset win over Providence

Minutemen upset Friars Friday

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Touri: Eight things we learned from UMass’ upset win over Providence

(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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With the Massachusetts men’s basketball team landing a huge statement win on the road against Providence on Friday, there’s a lot to unpack from the team’s most impressive performance of the season.

From sharpshooting sophomores to ever-changing rotation, here are eight things we learned from Friday’s big comeback at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

1. Carl Pierre will be just fine

After his two-point, 0-of-5 performance against Holy Cross, plenty of people were concerned about Pierre falling victim to a sophomore slump. Tuesday wasn’t his only rough performance, as he was held scoreless earlier in the season against Howard, and he was only hitting threes — his bread and butter — at a 36 percent clip coming into Friday.

But once the shots started falling for Pierre against Providence on Friday, they didn’t stop. Pierre’s 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting from deep sparked an improbable comeback, and his individual 9-1 run over 65 seconds in the second half was the turning point in the biggest win of the Matt McCall era.

I plan to go a little more in depth on Pierre later in the week, but I’d hold the thoughts about him being a one-season wonder — the kid’s going to be alright.

2. Luwane Pipkins remains very, very good at basketball

It almost felt like Pipkins’ heroics on Friday night, save for the winning layup, flew under the radar. Because of Pierre’s heat check and Curtis Cobb’s strong night, as well as Samba Diallo’s impressive debut in the starting lineup, another excellent Pipkins night wasn’t quite at the forefront.

Pipkins was only 1-of-7 from deep, but compensated by getting into the lane and hitting shot after shot, be it fallaway or floater, finishing with 26 points, five assists and five rebounds. Pierre brought UMass back into the game, but Pipkins kept them alive in the first place. He also assisted four of Pierre’s triples, and his vision in transition set up the sophomore time after time.

And, of course, he blew past David Duke in the pick and roll to earn a huge win for UMass. He’s as electric as ever, and will probably be an Atlantic 10 Player of the Year candidate in March.

3. Samba Diallo has earned some minutes

Just to be clear — Jonathan Laurent is extremely important to this team. Arguably as important as anyone but Pipkins — but Diallo stepped up in a huge way on Friday night. He’s got length and versatility and athleticism in spades, and it really came out against Providence.

Whether he was grabbing 10 rebounds or locking down Alpha Diallo or A.J. Reeves, Diallo took his opportunity and ran with it, and he just keeps getting better every night. My colleague Thomas Johnston wrote about Diallo in November, and one point that stuck with me is that Diallo is still only in his third year of organized, competitive basketball. His ceiling is sky-high, and I think McCall is going to utilize that potential more as we go along.

I don’t know where exactly those minutes would come from — perhaps he actually could see minutes at the five alongside Laurent rather than in place of him — but he’s earned his spot in the rotation. Speaking of which:

4. Matt McCall’s rotation is shortening

 A quick glance at Friday’s box would suggest I’m off the mark; 10 guys saw minutes against Providence, and eight saw at least double digits. Unique McLean, who hasn’t really played all year, even saw 10 minutes in the first half.

But in the second half, when it really mattered, five guys (Pipkins, Pierre, Cobb Diallo and Holloway) played 88 of the 100 available minutes. When Holloway is playing 16 minutes in a half — he’s averaged only 18.5 a night this year — that’s a tight rotation.

In the biggest win of his tenure, McCall rode the guys he trusted. When A-10 play rolls around, that’ll continue — eventually, he knows he can’t spend time giving guys developmental minutes. I doubt we’ll see any of McLean, Kieran Hayward’s had three consecutive DNPs (and saw a combined nine minutes in the three games previously), Sy Chatman and Khalea Turner-Morris will probably take a backseat and Keon Clergeot and Tre Wood probably won’t take as many minutes away from Pipkins and Pierre.

McCall’s got depth this year, and that’s great, but when it comes down to it, I expect him to roll with the guys he really trusts more often than not.

5. Tre Wood needs to play next to Luwane Pipkins

Friday was a bit of rough outing for Wood, but it’s completely understandable: a freshman guard against an excellent backcourt in a hostile environment and a packed house is always going to be a bit jittery. He was a little out of control, turning it over twice in quick succession in the first half.

I’m very sure that Wood is going to be very good, but for right now, I think he needs to be out there with Pipkins. His current utility is that his speed and ball-handling allows Pipkins to play off the ball, and when a guy like Pipkins is getting easy shots from outside facilitation, he’s very dangerous.

Wood will be ready to run a complete offense someday, but for right now, he’s best served next to guys like Pipkins, Pierre and Cobb, using his speed and ability to blow past defenders at will to collapse defenses and find open shooters. Defenders will have to respect Pipkins, which gives Wood room to maneuver — eventually, they’ll have to respect his quickness and driving, which will open up those shots even more.

6. The Minutemen can defend (when they feel like it)

In the first half, the Friars lit UMass up to the tune of 50 points on 64 percent shooting from deep, hitting nine threes en route to an 18-point halftime lead.

In the second half, Providence only scored 28 points, and were held to 36 percent shooting from the floor and only hit one 3-pointer.

I believe McCall when he says the defense isn’t a schematic issue, because on nights like Friday, they’re smothering. The Friars weren’t missing open looks, they just weren’t getting any. UMass forced nine turnovers in the second half, and scored 12 points from them. Alas, we still have to see that consistently. But man, when they get it right defensively, it’s something.

7. Curtis Cobb is this team’s second option

This is not a shot at Pierre. I promise. We saw on Friday how important Pierre is and how hot he can get at the right time. What I mean here is that when the Minutemen need a bucket in a halfcourt set, Cobb is the guy who can create his own shot when Pipkins is getting hounded.

Cobb was huge on Friday, scoring 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting — dig a little deeper, and you’ll see that all seven makes were unassisted.

Now, you can see that as bad ball movement, or you can see it as Cobb being able to beat guys off the bounce or create space for a shot when he needs to. Pipkins can’t do everything alone in isolation, nor should McCall be calling isolations every time down; but when he needs someone to make someone happen, Cobb is the next man up.

8. Rashaan Holloway is still a very valuable piece

I think Holloway’s received a lot more criticism this season than he did over the first half of last year, and I understand why. There are moments where he’s extremely frustrating, and, in the case of the Nevada game, unplayable. But man, he was useful on Friday.

His numbers weren’t spectacular, but they were very solid: eight points on 4-of-5 from the field with seven rebounds, and some very good defense that didn’t find its way into the box score.

Holloway was immense protecting the rim on Friday, and was very efficient when he got his touches. Most importantly, he played 28 minutes, and never looked fully out of gas. He was still effective defensively down the stretch, and while he still can’t play up-tempo or run the floor, and his free throws and turnover numbers can leave something to be desired, he’s a problem. Some nights, he might need to give way to Diallo or Laurent — but some nights, he’s vital. Friday was the latter.

This last one doesn’t really deserve its own item, but I’ll still mention it: the season isn’t dead, and the sky isn’t falling. In the aftermath of the loss to Holy Cross, there was a lot of frustration within the fanbase, and understandably so. Heck, my own column last week, which I hope hedged enough to not fall into the sky-is-falling category, was written with concern.

There’s a lot of basketball left to be played, and for the third time this season, we’ve seen the Minutemen at their very best — their offensively scorching, defensively smothering best — and there’s reason for optimism.

They also probably shouldn’t be taking sizes for A-10 championship rings quite yet, but the potential is there. We learned a lot on Friday, but as MassLive columnist Matt Vautour told me after last year’s back-to-back big wins over Providence and Georgia, victories like this can be a springboard or a high point.

Only time will tell.

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

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