Results aside, Minutemen received a taste of “playoff basketball” in regular season finale against Saint Louis

Active roster has combined for 6 playoff appearances

By Dan McGee, Assistant Sports Editor

Beyond Carl Pierre and Mark Gasperini, members of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team have never played in a Division I college basketball playoff game.

Pierre and Gasperini have played in three each over the course of their collegiate careers, while sophomores like Tre Mitchell, Kolton Mitchell and TJ Weeks have never had the chance after last season’s Atlantic 10 Tournament was cancelled. Beyond Dibaji Walker who is out for the season, the rest of the roster is composed of freshman who have only played an abbreviated 13-game schedule this season, including only 10 conference games.

While being blown out 78-57 to Saint Louis prevented them from securing a double bye in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, the Minutemen (7-6, 6-4 Atlantic 10) can’t take the experience playing against a conference giant such as the Billikens (13-5, 6-4 A-10) for granted.

“Obviously it was a big game, and our guys were excited for the opportunity and we did not play well,” said head coach Matt McCall. “When you play against a team like that that’s got seniors like [Jordan] Goodwin, [Hasahn] French and [Javonte] Perkins who have played a lot of A-10 basketball games, you’ve got to go out there and execute, you’ve got to go out there and execute on both sides of the ball.”

Just over 10 minutes into Monday’s matchup, it was quite apparent that Saint Louis was the better team. Execution on the defensive side of the floor—mainly preventing Tre Mitchell from taking over the interior—bled into offensive production for the Billikens. A two-point deficit midway through the first half quickly ballooned to an 11-point difference at the break, which grew to a 21-point gap when the final buzzer sounded.

All in all, the experienced senior trio of Goodwin, French and Perkins combined for 41 points as five different Saint Louis players reached double-digit scoring figures.

While the failure to secure a double bye may disappoint UMass fans and the Minutemen alike, the odds were never in UMass’ favor. Playing in front of fans for the first time all year, against an experienced squad that went 12-1 at home this season, who would have likely been in easy contention for an NCAA Tournament bid had they not paused activity for over a month due to COVID-19, did not bode well before the game even started for the Minutemen.

However, with this loss in the rearview mirror and a Feb. 23 loss to an experienced Richmond squad far behind them, the Minutemen need to treat their last two regular season games as their playoff experience to date.

“We needed games like this, we needed to play against teams like this going into the tournament,” McCall said. “You’re going to have to beat teams in order to advance. We played our last two games of the season against the two teams that were picked to win the league. We’ve got to look at the film, got to get better.”

Granted, ending its season with two blowout losses can’t feel good. But for a team that desperately lacks experience playing high-pressure, high-level basketball, it’s all that they have got.

Saint Louis returned 93 percent of its scoring from last year’s fourth place 23-8 team. Richmond returned 95.6 percent of the scoring from its second place, 24-7 team last season. UMass, while they recruited the 71st best class in the country, returned just 63.9 percent of its scoring from the 2019-20 roster.

The process of building a winning college basketball program doesn’t happen in a year all because you have a great recruiting class compared to the rest of the conference. Successful programs recruit and develop those recruits into winning teams. And to develop you’ve got to play games, often important ones, to reach your maximum potential.

And while UMass can’t automatically gain years’ worth of experience across two regular season blowout losses, they will look to grow from it both in terms of this season’s A-10 tourney and in the long run.

“Hopefully we can learn from this,” McCall said. “We needed this to happen just in terms of the takeaways and we’ve got to learn how we can get better. We’ve got a few days to do that, we’ll head straight to Richmond tomorrow. Looking forward to a great tournament.”

The Minutemen will take on either Saint Joseph’s or La Salle in their first Atlantic 10 Championship game of the season. Tipoff is set for Thursday, March 4 at 1 p.m.

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