UMass basketball’s summer of change rolls on

Program overhaul continues


Collegian File Photo

By Amin Touri, Editor in Chief

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team borders on unrecognizable at this point.

Matt McCall, Carl Pierre and Khalea Turner-Morris are all that remains from even the 2017-18 Minutemen (plus Keon Clergeot, who redshirted that season). That trio plus Samba Diallo, Sy Chatman and Djery Baptiste are the only links back to last season’s squad, which was bounced in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament in March.

Four months, six transfers out, seven freshmen in, three fired assistants, three new assistants and a special advisor later, it’s a completely different program top to bottom.

“Most challenging two years of my life,” McCall said. “And the at the end of it, it got even harder. You know, you never want to look too far back, but it’s about understanding and knowing exactly what I was walking into and what this program needed. One NCAA tournament in 21 years… why? And having to figure that out and work through, you know, some of the most challenging days, weeks months, ever, and make some very, very difficult decisions. I don’t blame anyone, I take full ownership in where our program was, but I think you have to go through those experiences, you know, when there’s been a lack of success at a place to know exactly what needs to be done.”

The most difficult of those decisions came five days after that tournament exit, when all three of McCall’s assistants — Peter Gash, Cliff Warren and Rasheen Davis — were let go. In their place came Woodstock Academy coach Tony Bergeron and Fairfield assistant Tyson Wheeler, while director of operations Luscious Jordan got a promotion.

Of the three, the Bergeron hiring probably gained the most attention, as along with him came Preston Santos (committed well before the coaching shakeups), T.J. Weeks and Tre Mitchell, who rounded out one of UMass’ finest recruiting classes in years.

Bergeron seemed like a surprise in a vacuum — prep success, a history of developing Division I-caliber players, but no prior experience at the college level. McCall, however, had nothing but praise for his new assistant.

“He’s a basketball junkie for one,” McCall said. “He loves the game. He brings a tremendous amount of energy. If you watch us practice, the energy that he has out on floor in June and July is through the roof. That’s what you want out of your coaching staff. He was around in the 90s when UMass was really, really good, and that was something else that attracted me to him as a part of our staff was that he’s been around, he saw how good this program was. He’s from down the street in Springfield. He was around when it was rolling, you know, and it hasn’t been rolling in a long, long time. So being able to have someone on staff also that was around when it was in its heyday, I thought was important. But he just brings this tremendous amount of energy. He’s loyal through the roof. And again, when you would go to Woodstock and watch him coach and watch him interact with his players, those guys ran through a wall for him.”

While Bergeron probably won’t take on the “defensive coordinator” role that’s becoming increasingly popular within the game, that side of the ball seems to be his forte, as McCall looks to finally implement the pressing style he’s talked about since his first day at the helm.

“I just gained a tremendous amount of respect for him, seeing how his players [at Woodstock] reacted to him when he would coach, but also just how hard they played, when I’d go watch them play games as well,” said McCall. “And I loved the style of play that they played at Woodstock. He’s got four or five different press defenses, constantly running around trapping, trying to create takeaways and turnovers that will lead to easy baskets. So being able to give him some freedom right now with our defense to be able to implement some of that stuff, I think will be good for this team.”

Keon Clergeot, Carl Pierre and Sy Chatman, among the only returning Minutemen. (Joe Frank/Daily Collegian)

Wheeler and Jordan will bring their own value to the staff, but the other notable addition was former Dartmouth and Fairfield head coach Paul Cormier, a Lexington, Massachusetts native who will serve as a special assistant to the head coach, someone with experience running a program who will work as McCall’s top advisor. Before formalizing the role, he was already a source of advice for McCall as just a local with top-level experience.

“Obviously Paul has been away from the business for a couple years now, but not out of it, just away from it,” McCall said. “He’s been helping out with his son at Cushing Academy, but kind of came around, saw our program and would come to practice and would come to games and kind of see how things were being run. He was a tremendous resource guy that I could call and just talk to, vent to, over the last year or so, and wanted to really be a part of it.”

Cormier was an assistant at Bentley and Villanova in the late 1970s and early 1980s before taking over at Dartmouth from 1984-1991. He then coached at Fairfield from 1991-1998, eventually spending over a decade working the NBA both as a scout for multiple organizations and as an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics before returning to Dartmouth for seven seasons between 2010-2016.

“He’s got over 30 years of head coaching experience. He’s coached in the NBA. He knows what it’s like to be at that level,” McCall continued. “He’s been on a bench in the NBA, he’s been an NBA scout you know, everyone talks about how they want to be a pro, want to be a pro, want to be a pro — this guy can tell our players exactly what they’re looking for because he did it and he was on a bench with NBA teams.

“He’s just a guy that that really knows and understands the challenges that I go through as a head coach and can really help me with some of those. Paul’s got no ego, he just wanted wants to be around to help and he’s another guy like Tony, he’s a basketball junkie that just loves the game and loves helping young people. We’re really excited about him and the things that he can be, just a tremendous resource for not only myself but the rest of our young coaching staff.”

A lot of this team’s success hinges on how the freshmen develop — McCall acknowledged that there’s a learning curve with so many young guys — but he’s been very pleased with the returnees, particularly Sy Chatman and Samba Diallo.

Sy Chatman should play a bigger role for the Minutemen this season. (Collegian File Photo)

“The development of Diallo and Chatman the summer has been through the roof,” said McCall. “Been very, very proud of how far they’ve come. I think Samba is finally in a place where he’s 100% healthy, and I think Sy has had a tremendous summer. He just looks like a different player, the way he moves the confidence about himself as a lot of positivity around him, which I think is what he needs. And he’s been tremendous.”

McCall also acknowledged that there’s plenty of unknowns: how will the freshmen pan out? How will Diallo develop if healthy? Can Chatman make a leap? Will Pierre take the next step? How will it all blend together?

Lucky for him, he’s got a chance to see his team against other competition much earlier than usual, as another new wrinkle this summer is an August trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, the team’s first preseason trip under McCall. UMass is yet to announce any dates or opponents for the trip.

“I think this trip in August is absolutely huge for this basketball team, being how young we are,” he said. “Being able to get down there and play three games against other competition will give us a really good barometer of where we are and where we need to get to.”

Teams can go on preseason trips like this one every four years, and unlike McCall’s last trip with Florida Atlantic to France, Belgium and the Netherlands, the Minutemen are staying in the Western Hemisphere and under American jurisdiction for safety’s sake.

“We picked the Virgin Islands, and there’s just so many different things going on in the world right now, and all of sudden, you put a group of young guys on an airplane go overseas, heaven forbid, something happened,” McCall said. “So, you know, St. Thomas is a beautiful place, our guys will enjoy it, it will really give us an opportunity to bond come together as a team.

“But again, that, you know, going through a two-and-a-half hour practice in August, and then playing against other competition will be great for this basketball team… I think for a group of seven freshmen, I think it’s big.”

Program-wide, the times, they are a changin’ in Amherst, and the make-or-break summer for the Matt McCall era rolls on.

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