Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Previewing the 2022-23 UMass men’s basketball new-look roster

Eleven new players mark the beginning of Frank Martin’s first season in charge
Kayla Wong/ Daily Collegian

As the Massachusetts men’s basketball team nears the start of a new season on Monday, Nov. 7, when it will face Central Connecticut State at home, the program also ushers in a new era under head coach Frank Martin.

Out of the 15 players from last year’s roster, just five remain on the team for the 2022-23 season ­­­– not to mention an entirely new coaching staff as well. But Martin has taken strides in building a foundation for how this team wants to play.

According to Martin, the Minutemen will be aggressive offensively and attack the paint with constant entry passes into the post, lots of screens and off-ball movement. However, the identity of the Minutemen lies on the defensive side.

“I keep using the phrase ‘we ain’t getting out of the way,’ and that’s what we’re going to be,” Martin said. “We’re not letting people barge in here and knock our door down. It’s not going to happen. And if they do happen to knock our door down, there’s going to be a bunch of guys standing in the doorway so you’re not coming in here. And that’s going to be our mindset every time we take the court.”

Let’s take a look at each piece of the puzzle and how it shapes the Minutemen’s new profile.

The most recognizable returning face is star guard Noah Fernandes. He ran the show for the Minutemen last year as a scorer and passer, leading the team with 14.9 points and 5.3 assists per game. As one of the best players in the Atlantic 10, the importance of the senior can’t be understated. Fernandes will push for an All-Atlantic 10 nod after barely missing out last year and earning a place in the preseason All-Conference Second Team this season.

A Massachusetts native, Fernandes is as an experienced and complete guard, but his offense is what makes him special. The 5-foot-11-inch floor general has the offensive prowess to take over a game, which he showed by averaging 27.6 points over the last three games of the season.

“[Fernandes is] a very intellectual player,” Martin said. “He’s athletic enough, but he doesn’t play through athleticism, he plays through mind and skill with that competitive demeanor he’s got. The one thing I’ve noticed right away with Noah, he’s trying to figure out what I need from him and trying to play with a different sense of urgency defensively, than he had been asked to play with before. You can speak strategy in the middle of a play with him.”

T.J. Weeks returns for his fourth season with the Minutemen. The sharpshooter was one of the most important players in the team last year with his versatility and defensive ability. He averaged 9.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.

His 3-point shot is well known, but the 6-foot-4-inch athletic guard does much more than that. Weeks can handle the ball and take it to the basket, where he finishes through contact or finds the open man. Defensively he’s strong. He has size and speed, and the redshirt junior can guard the 1-through-4 and even hold his own against small-ball centers.

The third returner who got consistent minutes for UMass last season is Dyondre Dominguez. Dominguez entered his freshman year as a lanky stretch four, but looks to play a different role under Martin. He stated the junior forward is embracing the more physical style the team is adopting this year.

There’s a lot to talk about between Martin’s work in the transfer portal and his first freshman recruiting class in Amherst. The two combine a healthy mix of proven, experienced players and talented players yet to be developed into difference makers.

Starting with the transfer class, a player who’ll contribute right away for the Minutemen is 6-foot-10-inch center Wildens Leveque. Leveque played under Martin for three years at South Carolina before transferring to UMass, so his role in helping teammates navigate Martin’s coaching style is invaluable.

The Brockton, Mass. native is a complete center, and averaged 6.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game for the Gamecocks, shooting 59.2 percent from the field.

On Tuesday, UMass played an exhibition game against American International College at the Mullins Center and Louisville transfer Matt Cross stole the show. The junior forward from Beverly, Mass. is a type of player the Minutemen didn’t have who checks all the boxes.

At 6-foot-7-inches, he can shoot from deep, put it on the floor and drive to the rim, pass with security and creativity and defend inside or outside the perimeter. Cross has guard-like quickness along with that frame, allowing him to blow past defenders with ease. He tallied 15 points, eight rebounds, five assists and no turnovers in 24 minutes against the Yellow Jackets.

Isaac Kante is another big man who’ll have a similar role to Leveque. The Long Island University transfer doesn’t come from a big-name program or conference, but he fits right in for the way the Minutemen want to play. As a 6-foot-7-inch forward, the graduate transfer dominated AIC with 18 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks, all game-highs.

Kante isn’t the only one making the move from LIU to Amherst. Sharks head coach Derek Kellogg is an assistant under Martin, returning as an assistant coach to a program he once called home for nine years as a head coach and four as a player.

“I don’t think I’ve ever done a package deal as a coach, but anytime you can get a package deal where you got a successful Division-I head basketball coach and a 6-foot-7, 260-pound raging bull at the rim, I’m in on that package deal,” Martin said.

Two other forwards also followed Martin and Leveque from South Carolina to UMass: Ta’Quan Woodley and Brandon Martin. Woodley is only a sophomore but won’t be playing this year due to personal reasons. Martin, the coach’s son, is another grad transfer who’ll bring experience and leadership to the Minutemen.

Capping off UMass’ transfer forwards is Gianni Thompson, a Boston College transfer, former four-star prospect and No. 1 recruit in Massachusetts who got almost no playing time at BC.

Martin only brought in one guard from the portal, but he’s an intriguing find and potentially massive contributor. Rahsool Diggins hails from the University of Connecticut, where he barley saw the floor as a freshman last year.

Diggins have an immediate role in a roster that needed talented ball handlers. The 6-foot-2-inch point guard has a well-rounded profile and is a former top-50 recruit, excelling on both ends of the court.

The first freshman recruiting class Martin put together at Amherst consists of just three players, but all are highly useful right away and possess upside – especially four-star recruit Tafara Gapare.

Gapare, a native of Wellington, New Zealand, is already one of the most talented players on the roster and one of the best athletes in his entire class.

He reclassified to 2022 and decommitted from DePaul earlier in the year before joining the Minutemen. A 6-foot-9-inch forward who can handle the ball and jump out of the gym, Gapare was ranked in the top 10 for power forwards and top 50 nationally in the 2023 class (247Sports.) He made an immediate impression in his first practice with the team.

“We’re in game prep, so we put [Gapare] out there to replicate Central Connecticut State’s zone,” Martin said. “And the first time he was on the court, somehow some way, he came up with the ball ahead of everybody and put his head on the rim and dunked the ball.”

“A couple of plays after he was in, a guy went in to score and [Gapare] comes out of nowhere blocks a shot at the rim like elbow on the rim kind of deal. Those are the things that he brings.”

The other two recruits are very different guards. One is 6-foot Keon Thompson from Merrillville, Indiana. Thompson is a floor general and a prolific scorer with over 2000 points in his high school career, but his calling card for the Martin-led Minutemen is relentless on-ball defense.

RJ Luis is the second one. A 6-foot-7-inch wing from Miami, Luis adds a unique profile at the two or three position with his length and skill, bringing great potential on both sides of the ball as well.

Martin refers to the players in the “middle” as the ones he prioritizes most for his system.

“You better have a point guard, and you better have centers,” Martin said. “You better have depth on those two spots. Because one initiates your offense, one initiates your defense, one completes your defense, one completes your offense.”

UMass had the second-best offense and the worst defense in the in the A-10 last season. Both are unlikely to repeat with this roster and coaching staff.

The Minutemen tip-off their season at 7:30 p.m. on Monday at the Mullins Center against Central Connecticut State.

Pedro Gray Soares can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @P_GraySoares.

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