After its fourth pause of the season due to COVID-19 protocols, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team is coming out of a week and a half break to take on Fordham, a team struggling to find its identity and fresh off of firing its former head coach Jeffrey Neubauer.
Last time out on the floor the Minutemen (5-4, 4-2 Atlantic 10) struggled to hang on to their lead against a quality Davidson team. UMass seemed to be firing on all cylinders in the first half against the Wildcats, but a lackluster end to the first half and stagnant second half saw their lead quickly collapse. Davidson took advantage and pulled ahead in the final few minutes.
The same story and pattern could be said for the last outing against Fordham. The Minutemen entered the Bronx riding a two-winning streak and did pull out the win on the road thanks to a commanding first half display where they held the Rams (1-8, 1-8 A-10) to just 15 points.
The second half was a bit of a different story. UMass shot just 1-of-14 from deep in the second half after shooting just over 64 percent in the first half from three. Keeping the momentum going into the second half has been a problem for the Minutemen this year and it will be a test for the young squad to see how they react after a layoff.
“It’s definitely hard to beat a team two times,” senior guard Carl Pierre said. “Being that their head coach got fired…they might be playing very inspired. I don’t think you can rest on the fact that we beat them. We have to come in with intensity and hunger and try to beat them again.”
It certainly will be a challenge that UMass may not have expected to come with so much anticipation, but another long layoff has put a dent into the rhythm the team has been playing with.
On the flip side, the Minutemen took this break as a blessing in disguise. After Tre Mitchell went down with a shoulder injury towards the end of the second half against Davidson, the break came at the right time in terms of getting back to full health. Injury knocks to Dibaji Walker and a concussion that Kolton Mitchell picked up in the previous game at Fordham has given the depleted UMass team some much needed rest.
“We’ve got a couple different things going on,” UMass head coach Matt McCall said. “We’ve got guys that are dealing with some injuries. It’s just hard to play with when you are dealing with a wrist injury on your shooting hand, that’s a hard injury to play with and that’s almost just a pain tolerance thing…we’ve got a bunch of game-time decisions [Wednesday against Fordham].”
Whether or not T. Mitchell plays will be a factor into how UMass approaches the game against Fordham. He is undoubtedly the best player on the floor for the Minutemen and the argument can be made that he has been one of the top players in the Atlantic 10 this year.
His ability to fight through double and triple teams in the post creates spacing for UMass as he can kick out the ball to the corners or find the open man cutting to the basket. Beside the fact that he can knock down two to three shots from deep a game, he poses a threat on the glass for opponents and creates a matchup that very few teams can guard up against.
The game plan will have to switch up without T. Mitchell on the court, and the Minutemen would lose a very dynamic scorer who is gifted with the ability to create offense through passing the ball.
“Obviously so much emphasis is put on post-feeding and getting the ball to [T. Mitchell] on the block,” McCall said. “Really just trying to open up the floor, let our guards play too with a tremendous amount of freedom, transition opportunities there, trying to steal more possessions in the game, keeping it simple on offense and maybe the possibility of playing with four guards at times and really spacing it out.”
If T. Mitchell plays, there certainly will be a sigh of relief from UMass fans. On the other hand, if he isn’t fit enough to play it certainly will test the resiliency of the young squad to see how they manage without their top scorer.
The guard play will certainly have to step up and fill the void of scoring left by T. Mitchell, but the likes of Noah Fernandes, TJ Weeks, Javohn Garcia and Pierre have shown capable of controlling the tempo on the court.
UMass takes on Fordham this Wednesday with tipoff scheduled for 6 p.m. in Amherst.
Frederick Hanna IIII can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @FrederickHIII.