UMass basketball returns for final stretch of season after sudden hiatus

Minutemen were on pause starting Feb. 6

By Dan McGee, Assistant Sports Editor

The bus ride home to Amherst on the night of Feb. 6 was jubilant for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team. After all, the Minutemen (7-4, 6-2 Atlantic 10) had just completed a season sweep of Rhode Island, defeating the Rams 75-63 on national television without two of UMass’ best players in Tre Mitchell and Noah Fernandes.

The next morning, however, joy turned to displeasure.

On Feb. 7, the University of Massachusetts increased COVID-19 protocols after a campus-wide outbreak. The transition to a “high” level of alert put a pause on all UMass athletic programs for the following two weeks, cancelling scheduled Minutemen games against Dayton, Virginia Commonwealth, Saint Bonaventure and Duquesne.

“It was frustrating to wake up the next day and think we are going to celebrate a win and then to get that news,” center Mark Gasperini said. “Definitely frustrating but just another bump in the road considering how this year has gone. Just got to keep our head up and keep going, do what is ahead of us which is Richmond.”

The occurrence of a random break in team activity has unfortunately been a theme this year for UMass, as it has been throughout the college basketball landscape.

The season was initially delayed due to a team COVID-19 outbreak in November. Its first two games of 2021 were postponed because of a coronavirus pause at Saint Louis and the Washington, D.C. insurrectionist riots, causing a 10-day intermission between games. Before their most recent break, the Minutemen had to cancel a Jan. 30 matchup versus George Mason for contact tracing.

“We’ve been shut down for a number of different reasons,” head coach Matt McCall said. “Our guys continue to just push through and have great attitudes and have put themselves in a position now at the top of this league. We’re not focused on the outcome, we’re focused on getting better today, that’s been the message.”

“This last shut down was probably one of the more difficult ones to deal with, just in terms of the emotional victory we had, how we played. The next day to find out we were essentially shut down basically because of something completely out of our control was difficult for our guys to deal with, but again you didn’t see anyone sulking or complaining. This is the kind of year we are dealing with,” added McCall.

This time, after a nearly two-week layoff, the Minutemen were finally able to return to practice on Friday, Feb. 19.

“Definitely getting back to it was kind of tough,” Gasperini said. “But a week is not a month so the first couple days were rough, but I think we are getting back to it and we’ll be ready to go by tomorrow.”

Despite having only played six times since the beginning of the new year, the Minutemen have gone 5-1 during that span. Their play has propelled them toward the top of the conference standings where their 6-2 A-10 record places them in third behind St. Bonaventure and VCU.

However, the remaining few weeks of the season present the largest challenge UMass has had to take on all year in Richmond (12-5, 5-3 A-10) and Saint Louis (11-4, 4-3 A-10) before the Atlantic 10 Tournament begins on March 3.

“There’s going to be a big sense of urgency,” captain Carl Pierre said. “These next two games are very important and we’re going to approach them like that.”

Of the positive takeaways from the unexpected two-week hiatus, the Minutemen were afforded the opportunity to get healthier. Both Tre Mitchell and Noah Fernandes are expected to be available for the remaining few games, though defensive anchor Dibaji Walker has been ruled out for the season with a wrist injury.

“We’ve had essentially one day of full 5-on-5 practice and we did have everybody in there,” McCall said. “As of right now, everybody is doing well, we’ll see how everyone responds.”

Depending on the outcome of its final two conference games, the Minutemen can finish as strong as 8-2 or as low as 6-4 in A-10 play. If they win out, an .800-win percentage should all but confirm them as the top seed for the tournament, while an at worst .600-win percentage would have them rank as low as seventh.

Seeding for the conference tournament will be as follows, according to the Atlantic 10: teams above 60 percent of the median number of conference games played by all 14 teams will be seeded by conference winning percentage. Teams below that 60 percent threshold will be seeded using the NCAA NET ranking, relative to all A-10 teams. Additionally, teams below the 60 percent threshold will not be eligible for the regular season title.

Currently, 60 percent of the median number of conference games is 7.2, and the Minutemen sit just above that with eight conference games played.

“The rest of the A-10 is kind of questioning our credentials because of the team’s we’ve beaten so far this year,” Gasperini said. “We’re excited to go out there and prove that we belong in the top of the standings. Definitely looking forward to both games.”

Dan McGee can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TheDanMcGee.