Aliberti: UMass men’s basketball is making large strides earlier than expected

The Minutemen are 3-1 to start Frank Martin’s coaching tenure

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Dylan Nguyen/Daily Collegian (2022)

By Joey Aliberti, Managing Editor

Through much of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s game Friday, Murray State looked like the superior team. The Racers (2-2) were up 10 with 7:30 remaining but Noah Fernandes and the Minutemen (3-1) stormed back to snatch away the game with a last second 3-pointer.

Disregarding the way UMass played through the first 32:30 of the game, the win is very impressive. Fernandes hits his second game-winner in the past two seasons, this one while double-teamed and moving sideways. Murray State is also coming off a 88-79 win over No. 24 Texas A&M on Thursday.

UMass couldn’t make its shots against the Racers. It made 24-of-74 (32.4 percent) shots from the field. Everybody on the Minutemen struggled in the paint, and the offensive output looked like one that’s expected from a team playing its fourth game together. Not to mention they were 12-of-19 (63.2 percent) on free throws. T.J. Weeks missed two shots from the stripe with 17 seconds on the clock, which would’ve put UMass up two points.

“We didn’t play bad, the ball wouldn’t go in the basket, and that happens,” Minutemen coach Frank Martin said after Friday’s game. “When that happens, you got to figure out a way to win.”

After the season opener against Central Connecticut State, Martin mentioned what winning in a game like this would say about his team.

“The thing is can you still win on a bad day,” Martin said after the opener. “That’s when you know you got a good team, we haven’t been there yet. I don’t know when that moment comes, how we’re going to handle it. But when you still figure out a way to win on a bad day, I don’t care who the opponent is, that’s when you know you got a good team.”

It looked fairly hopeless for UMass and it still won the game. The fact that this team did so at this point in the season immediately shows a few different things:

Frank Martin is that good. I don’t think he expected to steal a win against a solid mid-major opponent in his fourth game. He is very clear in the fact that his team doesn’t need to lose before learning how to win, he just wants to win. He also knows he has a brand-new team, and with the exception of Wildens Leveque, Martin doesn’t fully understand his players and his players don’t fully understand him yet. He expected ugly and messy to start the season, yet he’s 3-1 with wins over Colorado and Murray State.

The Minutemen are a quality mid-major team. The Myrtle Beach Invitational has a strong group of teams, and UMass finds itself playing in the championship Sunday. Even in games when the Minutemen look bad for a long stretch of time such as Friday’s, they have the talent and coaching to stay in games. Fernandes himself has proven over the past two seasons that if he’s healthy and the game is within reach, his team has a chance. Matt Cross, Weeks, Leveque and Kante are the main pieces around Fernandes, but Martin went with an 11-man rotation and has that capability on any night. They’re going to have some bad losses in year one, but they’re also very capable of some high-level wins.

The Atlantic 10 preseason polls were probably wrong about UMass. In the voters’ defense it’s difficult to gauge an entirely new roster and coaching staff. The Minutemen landed at eighth in the polls, and while they could still finish there, it feels like there isn’t seven teams in this conference that are better. This doesn’t mean they’re even a top-three team, but in a strong conference UMass will be one of the best once this team figures itself out.

Nobody expected the Minutemen team that lost 67-55 to Towson a week ago would compete for their first in-season tournament championship since 2013 on Sunday. If this is the level UMass is playing at right now, it could be a legitimate A-10 team by season’s end.

Joey Aliberti can be reached via email at [email protected] and followed on twitter @JosephAliberti1