UMass needs production out of its veteran players on Thursday if it wants to advance in the tournament

Four Minutemen are averaging double digits in scoring this year


Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics

By Frederick Hanna III, Staff Writer

Through all the pauses and cancellations, the game that matters the most for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team is finally here.

UMass will be taking on Saint Joe’s (5-14, 2-9 Atlantic 10) Thursday in the second round of the A-10 Tournament. In some sense, it is a surprise that the tournament is actually taking place given all that has happened this year. The Minutemen (7-6, 6-4 A-10) have been put on pause multiple times this year and they were most recently given a two-week pause for all athletics on campus due to rising COVID-19 cases at the school.

The team has barely had fluid practices, has been limited in the number of players available for each game due to contact tracing and has dealt with multiple injuries throughout the year. Through all the adversity, UMass is making no excuses come Thursday’s second round matchup.

“Today practice was strictly about competing,” Minutemen coach Matt McCall said on Wednesday. “The team that plays with the most effort tomorrow is going to win the game, that’s the bottom line. We competed hard for about an hour, it was actually one of the better practices we have had. I feel good about where we are. That is the most important thing.”

UMass is coming off of a blowout loss to Saint Louis in which its star player Tre Mitchell only managed to get off seven shots. Mitchell ended up finishing with 10 points, but half of those points came from the free throw line after he went 5-of-6. The Minutemen have struggled when Mitchell isn’t out on the court. In their six losses on the season, Mitchell is averaging just 13 points per game, while in all of their wins this year he is averaging 23.8 points. Considering the sophomore exploded for 30 plus points in two out of the three opening games this year, the average is boosted significantly. After the first three games of the year Mitchell was off to an incredible start, but since then the sophomore has been dealt with a shoulder injury and has only been able to put up 20 or more points in two occasions.

“I think continuing to establish him on the low block when teams start running two guys at him [will get him more shots],” McCall said. “When he kicks it out and we have open shots we need to take them. We need to be aggressive there and when we don’t have open shots then we need to drive to the basket and put pressure on the paint. I think that is what we have to do. Teams are going to throw two guys at him and it is hard to score out of the double teams, it’s hard to even get a shot up.”

Scoring is key for UMass, and getting production out of the likes of Noah Fernandes, TJ Weeks and Carl Pierre will be critical to a win in the second round. Weeks has been intertwined with freshman Javohn Garcia due to different matchups defensively and the different skill sets that each one brings to the court. Weeks, Pierre, Fernandes and Mitchell are all averaging double digits in scoring on the season.

Weeks’ catch and shoot ability on the wings makes him a threat to any team but getting him going from three will be important on Thursday. The redshirt freshman has played in all 13 games this year and is averaging just under 30 percent from deep, a mark much lower than what he had last year. With a sample size that was much smaller last year, McCall emphasized throughout the year that the shots will fall as the games go by. Weeks has shown his ability to knock down that clutch three to get the momentum going for the Minutemen and they certainly will need that in their opening game of the tournament. Paired with Pierre at the guard spot, the two have the ability to light up the court when they are feeling it from beyond the arc.

Aside from Weeks and Pierre, Fernandes has been a steady shooter for UMass all year. The sophomore transfer out of Wichita State has made his impact felt across the league and certainly for the Minutemen this year. The sophomore is averaging 12.9 points per game and is leading the team shooting 38.5 percent from deep.

“The coaches see me [in practice] and they trust me to take those shots,” Fernandes said. “I got to do a better job of finding my times to shoot, time to find guys. I think this is a good time for me to start doing that as we get deeper in to the tournament. It’s good having that confidence from your coaching staff always.”

UMass takes on Saint Joe’s Thursday in the second round of the A-10 Tournament with tipoff scheduled for 1 p.m.

Frederick Hanna III can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @FrederickHIII.