Aliberti: Evaluating the Minutemen’s guard play without Noah Fernandes

Javohn Garcia is the x-factor in Fernandes’ absence

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McKenna Premus/Daily Collegian

By Joey Aliberti, Assistant Sports Editor

Noah Fernandes has taken the reigns of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s offense after the departures of Tre Mitchell (Texas), Carl Pierre (Rice) and Ronnie DeGray III (Missouri) during the offseason.

The Wichita State transfer averaged 11.1 points and 4.4 assists in the 2020-2021 season, third behind Mitchell and Pierre in scoring. Fernandes is now the leading scorer this season with 16 a game, while dishing out 5.2 assists per contest for a top-40 offense in the nation.

Fernandes missed Wednesday night’s game against La Salle due to a concussion and didn’t travel with the team to Philadelphia, which makes head coach Matt McCall think the injury is “pretty severe.” With him likely out for at least the near future, it’s time to look at how this offense fares without its top player.

Fernandes missed his third game of the season tonight after him and Trent Buttrick were diving for a loose ball in the previous game against Saint Louis. Oddly enough, the Minutemen (9-10, 2-5 Atlantic 10) have won all three games without Fernandes, averaging 82 points.

It is unfair to make it look like UMass is better and scores more points without Fernandes in the lineup. The combined record of the teams the Minutemen have faced in Fernandes’ absence is 25-30. This team is much better off with Fernandes healthy, plain and simple. The lack of a drop off without him has been impressive, but doesn’t mean much more than that.

Rich Kelly takes over Fernandes’ role as the primary ballhandler when the latter has been unavailable. Of the three games without Fernandes, Wednesday night’s 16-point comeback over the Explorers (6-11, 1-6 A-10) was his best yet. After a slow start, Rich Kelly ramped it up in the final 20 minutes, finishing with 17 second half points. He finished his night with 21 points and tied his season high of six assists. His numbers unsurprisingly take a slight uptick in the three Fernandes-less games. He has averaged 14.6 points and 4.3 assists in those games compared to 12 points and three assists over the entire season.

“I think when you have the ball in your hands a lot, you kind of just get comfortable,” Rich Kelly said. “I feel a lot more comfortable when I have the ball in my hands more.”

Even though Rich Kelly takes over the head role, the biggest change of UMass sans Fernandes is the role of Javohn Garcia. Garcia has steadily found himself more playing time even with Fernandes healthy. He has now logged three straight games of 20-plus minutes for the first time since last season, when he had only two games under 20 minutes played.

In those three games, Garcia is averaging 29.6 minutes, 14 points and 2.3 steals. In the other 16 games this season, he has only seen the court in nine. In the nine games he’s played with Fernandes, Garcia averages 14.5 minutes, 4.6 points and .4 steals. McCall has not been giving the minutes Garcia should be receiving, which is likely due to off-court reasons that McCall has hinted at a couple of times. The sophomore has done more than enough to earn a consistent role in the lineup when he has consistent minutes.

McCall cited the “luxury” of having the ability to give either T.J. Weeks, C.J. Kelly or Garcia in as the third guard down the stretch alongside Fernandes and Rich Kelly, depending on who is playing well. This is the first time McCall has grouped Garcia in with C.J. Kelly and T.J. Weeks, who serve more as wing players in comparison to Garcia, who plays as a combo guard.

The question surrounding the minutes of the three aforementioned players will not be a concern until Fernandes and his 34.8 minutes in fully healthy games is back in the lineup. Until then, Garcia can be expected to receive 25-30 minutes a night and the offense should take a hit against higher-level A-10 opponents. The Minutemen face two upper-level conference teams in their next two games (George Mason, Rhode Island), which will give a better feel on how good Garcia and UMass’ offense is. While Garcia is not Fernandes, he makes the loss of the star point guard not nearly as bad as it should be.

Joey Aliberti can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @JosephAliberti1.