UMass men’s basketball looks to smaller lineup to close out its win over Saint Joseph’s

Defense has seen an uptick with the smaller lineup

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Sophia-Zoe Schreyer

Sophie-Zoe Schreyer/Daily Collegian

By Joey Aliberti, Assistant Sports Editor

Matt McCall started two big men on Saturday afternoon, but the Massachusetts men’s basketball team finished the game with four guards, a strategy that has become commonplace for McCall. T.J. Weeks and Javohn Garcia joined Noah Fernandes, Rich Kelly and Trent Buttrick to close out a narrow 69-67 victory for UMass at home.

“Their intensity defensively,” McCall said about what he liked from the five players on the floor to close the game. “[Rich Kelly, Fernandes and Weeks’] communication out there,… it’s just non-stop.”

“Towards the end of games, you got to turn it up defensively, and in the timeouts, it was really [Rich Kelly, Weeks, Garcia and I] that were emphasizing that,” Fernandes said. “I feel like it just panned out that way because we were so locked in on the defensive end… “When you have guys that can communicate effectively like that on the court and are really together, I think that group can go really far.”

Fernandes made sure to credit the likes of Michael Steadman, — who finished with a game-high 19 points — Greg Jones and C.J. Kelly, who make up what looks to be McCall’s eight-man rotation for the remainder of the season barring any injuries.

Defense has been a major concern for the Minutemen (11-12, 4-7 Atlantic 10) this season, ranking 331st in points allowed per game (77.9) and 345th in opponent shooting percentage per game (48.3%) of 358 Division-I teams. Since starting four guards against Rhode Island last Saturday, UMass has allowed 70.3 points per game since.

“Towards the end of the season, we’ve seen that [playing four guards] has been effective for us,” Fernandes said.

“It’s all based on matchup for the game too, but that four guard lineup is really good,” Steadman said.

Garcia did not light up the box score on Saturday afternoon, but he still received his season-high in minutes when Fernandes is healthy with 22. His defensive presence was undeniable in the closing minutes of the game, highlighted by blocking a layup with less than a minute remaining to help the Minutemen seal the game.

“Little stuff that doesn’t go in the stat sheet, denying a wing, a few deflections, I think those were big,” Fernandes said of Garcia’s defense. “Especially for me because I think a couple times I was down in the post with Jordan Hall, and he deflected the pass out. He definitely stepped up today and he always does that whenever we need him.”

Weeks and Garcia had the widest margins of any players in terms of on-court/off-court differentials. UMass outscored the Hawks (10-13, 4-8 A-10) by 10 when Weeks was on the floor and got outscored by eight when he was off. Garcia helped the Minutemen outscore Saint Joseph’s by seven when he was on the floor, and they were outscored by five when he was off.

Fernandes, Rich Kelly and Weeks were also the only three players for the Minutemen to log an assist. They combined for 18 of them and two turnovers.

“With that lineup, we can really just push the ball and get a lot of open threes in transition,” Fernandes said. “We got all four guys that can really drive it, [and] obviously [Buttrick] can spread the floor. The whole objective of that lineup is just to spread the floor, try and get layups or open threes. With [us four] and Trent we can definitely do that consistently.”

Whether it is C.J. Kelly or Garcia in at the fourth guard slot, UMass will rely on smaller lineups more often to find a spark as the regular season comes to a close. The next game is at St. Bonaventure next Wednesday. Tip-off is at 7 p.m. and ESPN+ will stream the game.

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