Aliberti: McCall’s firing provided a spark for the Minutemen

“Everyone is just loose, together and having fun”

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McKenna Premus / Daily Collegian

By Joey Aliberti, Assistant Sports Editor

A coach’s firing is a move that intends to help a team’s long-term success. For the Massachusetts men’s basketball team, it’s done quite the trick on the short term too.

With a 99-88 win over George Washington in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, UMass (14-16, 7-11 A-10) is winners of three straight. This is the Minutemen’s second three-game winning streak of the season, also just their second time winning more than one game in a row. To add to the impressive run, all three wins come against teams that defeated the Minutemen earlier in the season.

Athletic Director Ryan Bamford wanted Matt McCall’s firing before season’s end to alleviate tension, to his credit it worked like a charm. UMass scored 68 points in its home loss to the Colonials (12-17, 8-9 A-10). That early February postgame presser was darker than usual. It was a game that the Minutemen really expected to win after a road victory over Rhode Island and the tension was climbing fast.

It escalated even more. Three bad losses were the final straw for Bamford, who fired McCall the day after the Fordham loss. Since then, they haven’t lost. What in god’s name has happened since March 1?

“Everyone’s a lot more free,” Trent Buttrick said on Tuesday. “There’s no real pressure anymore for us as a team. Everyone is just loose, together and having fun.”

It was clear that the back half of this season wasn’t a ton of fun for UMass. Dayton and VCU are great A-10 teams, but they had the Minutemen looking like a Division-II team.

UMass averaged 86 points in its past three games, in the 11 games before that they reached the 80-point mark once. A massive part of that is the resurgence of Noah Fernandes, who’s reached his career-high in scoring in two straight nights after shooting below 25 percent coming back from his concussion.

It takes more than that though. It’s no secret defense is the bane of McCall’s and the Minutemen’s existence, but additional offensive performances from Rich Kelly and T.J. Weeks keep that problem at bay. The inconsistency of secondary scorers during Fernandes’ tough stretch led to extremely underwhelming scoring outputs.

Fernandes didn’t score much in the win over Fordham, finishing with eight points. Kelly and Weeks combined for 32 in that win to lead the way. Kelly finished with 20 in the George Mason win then the two combined for 28 in Thursday’s win.

In the two losses against Dayton and VCU, Michael Steadman was the go-to scorer. Steadman was not in the rotation Thursday. When he is UMass’ leading scorer, it means that the guards are struggling. When the guards are struggling on a guard-driven team, games won’t be won.

That brings us to UMass-Dayton part two. The Flyers are bigger, stronger and much more athletic than the Minutemen. Like I said before, the last game was ugly. UMass couldn’t handle Dayton’s pressure, and they didn’t learn from it as VCU’s pressure had the same effect.

The Minutemen might very well do the same thing they did last year in the tournament: Score a ton of points and look great on offense against a bad team then lose to a high-level team the next day.

Weeks mentioned after the game how fatigue management played a factor in that quarterfinal’s loss to Saint Louis a year ago. Granted UMass played just two games in the month before the conference tournament. But McCall ran a seven-man rotation against GW, so fatigue is something to watch for against a fresh Flyers team.

Not much is going UMass’ way against Dayton. The Minutemen can’t beat top-end A-10 teams. Especially when those teams bring the press. Even more especially when that team is Dayton, who’s beat UMass five straight times.

But it is March, and this team is playing some of its best basketball at the right time. And this team is thriving after McCall’s firing. While it’s certainly not likely they win, the Minutemen are in a unique place right now.

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