UMass men’s basketball looking to adjust for rematch with Saint Louis

Minutemen fell to SLU in OT in January

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(Daily Collegian/ Parker Peters)

By Amin Touri, Editor in Chief

Taking on a repeat opponent for the third game in a row, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team is looking to keep some positivity flowing after a solid weekend performance against No. 5 Dayton.

UMass (10-15, 4-8 Atlantic 10) went toe-to-toe with the conference-leading Flyers but couldn’t quite pull off the upset, and now turns its attention to a rematch with Saint Louis (18-7, 7-5 A-10) on Tuesday night.

The Minutemen had a chance to steal one on the road in the first matchup with the Billikens in early January but threw the game away — literally and figuratively — late in the second half and overtime, eventually falling 83-80 after turning the ball over 25 times at Chaifetz Arena.

The Billikens are big, often starting 6-foot-10, 270-pound Jimmy Bell Jr. alongside 6-foot-7, 245-pound Hasahn French up front, a big focus for UMass in the return game.

“The game’s going to be won down in the trenches,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “When we played down at their place, I thought we did a really good job matching their physicality, especially up front. The problem was we turned it over 25 times and that ultimately cost us the game. Five-point lead in overtime with three minutes to go, had the ball and had some bad offensive possessions.”

French was problematic in January, going for 19 points and 13 rebounds as the Minutemen struggled to keep the junior big man — once under the tutelage of current UMass assistant coach Tony Bergeron at Commonwealth Academy — off the block and off the boards.

The Minutemen have flashed several different defensive looks in recent outings and will likely do the same Tuesday to keep French and the Billikens off balance.

“We didn’t play any zone the last time we played them, we were all man-to-man, and we felt like we should’ve won the game,” McCall said. “We’ll just kind of have to see how the game’s going — are we getting hurt, are we getting beat off the bounce? Changing defenses has been good for us, I think it’s part of the reason Dayton struggled on offense the other night, us changing and making them think more and guess. It’s kind of been what we’re doing, and we’ve got to stick with it because we’ve had some success with it.”

French’s major weakness is his free-throw shooting — among A-10 players who have taken at least 50 free throws this season, his 34.4 percent mark is easily the worst in the league. That raises the possibility of some Hack-a-French tactics come Tuesday, considering he went 1-of-6 from the line against the Minutemen last month.

“Coming down the stretch, if the game’s close… we wanted to do it the last time,” McCall said.
“And we didn’t do it. Up five, he catches it, we didn’t foul him, they kick it to the corner, three. So, if we’re in that situation again, hopefully we learn from it.”

UMass will likely continue to lean on freshman Tre Mitchell, who continued his recent tear with a stellar 26-point, 10-rebound double-double against Dayton on Saturday. It was enough to earn him his third A-10 Rookie of the Week nod; he’s averaging 20.5 points on 52.7 percent shooting along with 6.2 rebounds in his last six games, as he’s all but wrapped up the A-10 Rookie of the Year award with six games to play.

“[Mitchell]’s been unbelievable,” McCall said. “Some of his moves against Dayton, the move he made on the baseline, the one he missed and then he got his offensive rebound and put it back — the move he made was outstanding. We’ve just got to a much better job of, when he gets it, not standing around and getting more movement around him so three guys, four guys can’t guard him at one time.”

Secondary scoring continues to be an issue, as while Mitchell continues to tear up the A-10 in recent weeks, his teammates have quieted. UMass is in particular need of more production from Carl Pierre, who’s in the midst of a cold stretch. In the last six games, Pierre has averaged just 8.3 points per game on 27.3 percent from the field, with the Minutemen’s most reliable 3-point marksman shooting a paltry 15.4 percent from three — 6-for-39 — in that span.

“It’s still been an issue on offense: post-feeding and kind of just watching him,” McCall said. “One thing about Tre is he’s going to try to find you, and we’ve got to make sure we’re moving correctly around him, and when he does kick it out, we’ve got to make some of those looks.”

With six games to play, UMass has a chance to escape the Wednesday game at March’s A-10 tournament for the first time in McCall’s tenure, sitting 10th at 4-8 in conference play. It’s do-or-die time now as the Minutemen face a fairly tough final stretch: their three home games include three of their toughest opponents in SLU, Virginia Commonwealth and Rhode Island.  They’ll otherwise face La Salle, Fordham and Richmond on the road, having not won away from the Mullins Center in conference play since December of 2017.

Two wins out of those six could be enough for a bye — three wins would likely do the trick and four would almost certainly seal it.

“It’s a lot to play for,” McCall said. “We’re playing for a bye in the tournament — listen, when you’re in a tournament setting … when I was at Chattanooga, we had 26 wins going into the tournament, we were not on the bubble, we were the best team in the league. But we played whatever it was, 12-seed, 11-seed in the first game, and there are some nerves, and anything can happen. If you can get a bye and don’t have to play on that Wednesday, anything can happen on Thursday and Friday and Saturday. You’ve got to believe that.”We’re not focused at all on the tournament right now, but yeah, absolutely that’s something big that we’re playing for right now, that shows progress and shows we’re moving in the right direction.”

Tip-off on Tuesday is set for 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center.

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