UMass men’s basketball preps for season opener against UMass Lowell

New-look Minutemen tip off Tuesday

%28Parker+Peters%2F+Daily+Collegian%29

(Parker Peters/ Daily Collegian)

By Amin Touri, Collegian Staff

It’s finally time, as Matt McCall likes to say, for the popcorn to start popping.

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team opens its 2019-20 season at home on Tuesday night, hosting in-state opponent UMass Lowell on opening night for the fourth straight year. Much has been made of UMass’ significant roster turnover, with seven freshmen — more than the last two seasons combined — poised to play significant minutes for the Minutemen this season.

The River Hawks, meanwhile, are in a different place entirely — UML returns its three top scorers from last season in junior Obadiah Noel and graduate students Josh Gantz and Christian Lutete, a team anchored by its experience rather than its youth.

“They’ve got an older, veteran team,” McCall said Monday. “[They’ve] got older guards, got a sixth-year grad transfer in Gantz, seems like I’ve been watching that guy make threes forever — so they’re an older team. The message really has just been, the opportunity that we have to put on this jersey and go out here and compete, and don’t focus on whether or not the ball’s going in the basket. If you’re focusing on that, the focus is on yourself, and you can get distracted.

“Put the focus on the things that impact winning: playing hard, defending, rebounding, putting your body in plays, executing our defense, being unselfish.”

The Minutemen have had a couple opportunities already to see live action — the summer trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands saw solid returns, while a closed scrimmage against Hofstra gave a young UMass team its first taste of Division I competition in October. Last week’s exhibition against Western New England had its ups and downs, but gave the Minutemen a chance to play on their home floor.

“I think these guys have been ready to play,” McCall said. “We played three games in the Virgin Islands, we played a scrimmage, we’ve had an exhibition game. There’ll be some jitters because it’s the first game that counts. We’ll rely on veterans no question, like we do every single day from a leadership standpoint, but our freshmen are ready to go.”

Tre Mitchell is likely the only freshman that will earn a starting nod on Tuesday night, but Sean East, Kolton Mitchell, Preston Santos, T.J. Weeks, C.J. Jackson and John Buggs will all likely see floor time as McCall starts to settle on a rotation early on. With so many guys playing their first real collegiate basketball game on Tuesday, McCall’s message has been simple.

“Just focus on their role, and what they do well,” the third-year head coach said. “If you’re a good catch-and-shoot guy, catch and shoot with confidence. If you’re a skinny, long athlete, runner-jumper, who can impact the game defensively with his athleticism, try to get out here and get 10 hustle stats, offensive rebounds, deflections, loose balls, put your focus there. Don’t worry about whether or not the ball’s going in the basket. If you’re Tre Mitchell, work on getting good post position, work on guarding pick-and-rolls and being in a stance defensively, put your focus there and don’t worry about whether you miss a jump hook early or you miss your first three or whatever it is.

“[We’re] really trying to put their focus on the 95 percent — 95 percent of the game is played without the ball in your hands. What are you doing with that? Those are the things that impact winning.”

The biggest strategic shift for the Minutemen this season will likely be the implementation of the press defense that assistant coach Tony Bergeron used so successfully at Woodstock Academy last year, but early results during last week’s exhibition weren’t great, as McCall called the press “awful” afterward. It’s been a big focus in practice, though game reps are needed to iron out the details.

McCall had also lamented his team getting a bit lax ahead of the scrimmage, something he sought to rectify heading into the opener.

“Practice on Sunday was one of our better ones of the year, hopefully that translates,” McCall said. “Today is a day before a game, so you don’t really go as long, but we came in with the right focus and went hard, so hopefully these two practices translate. I thought Sunday we were terrific, flying around. The execution piece on offense has been something we’ve really been lacking, we’ve got to clean some stuff up there, and make sure we know the spots we’re supposed to be in and what we’re trying to do and what we’re looking for.”

The 2018-19 season was a disappointment for UMass, and the result was plenty of turnover within the roster and the coaching staff. The 2019-20 Minutemen look very little like their predecessors, and they become a bit difficult to project. McCall didn’t want to put expectations on his team ahead of Tuesday’s opener, aside from the constant goal of getting better every day; with the opener on Tuesday night, with a real opponent and a real crowd and the popcorn popping in the concourse, the message, all-around, seems fairly simple.

“Just to come in and play hard,” East said. “I remember when we played Hofstra in the secret scrimmage that our freshmen, we just came in and played hard and outworked their team.

“That’s kind of our identity as a whole too, to just be selfless, relentless and give good attitude, commitment and effort.”

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