UMass men’s basketball looking to bounce back in tough road test

Providence’s Alpha Diallo and A.J. Reeves will test struggling Minutemen defense

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UMass men’s basketball looking to bounce back in tough road test

By Thomas Haines, Assistant Sports Editor

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Three days after a stagnant second half cost the Massachusetts men’s basketball team the game against Holy Cross, it gets a chance to bounce back against a very good Providence team.

UMass (5-4) stalled out with a nine-point lead in the second half against Holy Cross, leading to an 82-78 loss that was worse than the score implied.

“Losing is never fun,” coach Matt McCall said. “It’s not fun for me, anybody on staff, it’s not fun for my wife. It’s not fun for anybody. But it’s part of it, and we’ve got to battle up and get better.”

The Minutemen have overcome some struggles already this season, particularly a two-game slump in mid-November that featured a particularly ugly loss to Howard. UMass responded with arguably its best play of the season, winning three out of four, with the only loss coming in a strong showing against No. 6 Nevada.

Providence is second only to that Nevada team as the Minutemen’s toughest conference opponents, and the sloppy play against Holy Cross only stacks the odds further against them.

“We’re going to find out a lot about our group tomorrow,” McCall said. “How do we respond? I think this team especially hasn’t responded great when things haven’t gone well, and that’s the case for a lot of inexperienced young basketball teams. Whether we have older guys we’re still that young basketball team. We’re still a young program. We have to learn how to respond better when things don’t go well.”

Although the entire team struggled against the Crusaders Tuesday night, sophomore guard Carl Pierre had a particularly rough night, finishing 0-5 from the field for the second time this year. In UMass’ four losses, Pierre has scored a combined 21 points, which matches his season-high for a single game.

“Just keep shooting,” guard Luwane Pipkins said of the message to Pierre. “Shoot till you hit, shoot till you miss. Do what you do. Don’t try to do nothing special, just shoot the ball. End of the day, they miss, keep shooting until you hit. Then go in there and keep shooting until you miss. I mean, shooters gon’ shoot, right?”

While his shooting has been inconsistent, Pierre continued to contribute solid if unspectacular play on the defensive end, where the Minutemen have struggled throughout the year. UMass has allowed 74.2 points per game this year, 231st in the country.

“One of our core values is toughness, and we’ve got to get a lot tougher,” McCall said. “If we could take seven points per game off the board and everybody make one less mistake, we’d be sitting here at 8-1. And that’s not the case, but we have to get a lot tougher on the defensive zone.”

Loaded with offensive talent, Providence comes in averaging 74.3 points per game, with four players averaging double digits. Guards Alpha Diallo and A.J. Reeves lead the Friars on the offensive end, with Reeves coming off a 24-point game to lead Providence to a close win over Boston College.

UMass will return to basics on the defensive end after having to adjust for Holy Cross’ Princeton-style offense. Pipkins emphasized the need for physicality on the defensive end.

“We know they’re a physical, good team,” Pipkins said. “We’ve just got to come in and play physical, match their physicality, and just strap up.”

On offense, UMass will try to counter the larger guards of Providence with the shiftiness of Pipkins and freshman Tre Wood, who have been seeing more minutes together in the last couple games. Fifth-year center Rashaan Holloway will likely see less time in what is anticipated to be a fast-paced game.

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

If UMass can’t move past the loss to Holy Cross from the outset, however, it will all be for naught. Against Howard, coming off a rough loss to Harvard, the Minutemen came out flat and never flipped the switch.

“You’ve got to weather the storms, that’s part of being a coach,” McCall said. “It’s not always going to be roses, it’s not always going to be pretty, and you’ve got to keep your guys in the right frame of mind mentally. We have to keep getting better. I think this team has an enormous amount in front of them. I think that we can still have a really good year, and I think we can get there, we just have to get better.”

Tip off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

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