UMass stays winless on the road in conference with its loss to St. Joseph’s

Minutemen are 2-5 against A-10 opponents

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Dylan Nguyen / Daily Collegian

By Pedro Gray Soares, Assistant Sports Editor

Still without its star point guard Noah Fernandes, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team struggled to take care of the basketball during a 74-68 road loss to St. Joseph’s on Saturday.

After a strong non-conference schedule performance, the Minutemen (11-8, 2-5 Atlantic 10) have grappled with consistency and injury issues to start conference play. This time against the Hawks (9-10, 3-4 A-10), UMass suffered with turnovers, perimeter defense, rebounding and more, with its young guards unable to carry the team forward.

“Outside of the Rhode Island game and the first half of the Saint Louis game, our individual attention to detail on games has been really bad,” Minuteman coach Frank Martin said after the game. “We got no personality right now. I don’t have a single guard on our team that’s willing to talk and communicate, and when your guards don’t talk your team takes on that personality. So you get in the games and they’re hard, especially road games, you’ve got to defend and you’ve got to communicate. That didn’t happen again. And that’s disappointing.”

“For us to win games I need a guard who’s willing to speak. I can’t have four mutes playing at the guard spot. And you go through a whole game – heck, you go through a whole practice, and none of the four say a word.”

Without Fernandes, the team has struggled with leadership in the guard position. Philadelphia native Rahsool Diggins stepped up his scoring on Saturday with 15 points in his homecoming game, but isn’t used to the vocal responsibility Fernandes has. Now a sophomore, Diggins transferred from UConn after a lack of playing time his freshman season, and along with true freshmen Keon Thompson and RJ Luis, UMass’ guards outside of Fernandes have little experience.

“When you’re playing freshmen, you’re not going to win,” Martin said.

The Minutemen suffered 17 turnovers and St. Joe’s scored 23 points off those turnovers. When the offense slumped, no one managed to rescue it and the team fell into shot-selection problems. On defense, UMass’ backcourt couldn’t handle the Hawks’ counterparts. Cameron Brown and Erik Reynolds II dominated the game with 25 and 23 points, respectively. Brown shot 9-for-12 from the field while Reynolds terrorized the Minutemen from the foul line, going 8-for-9 at the stripe.

But even with Fernandes on the court, the Minutemen have struggled defensively in conference play, allowing 79.3 points per game since A-10 action began. One of the biggest difficulties for the team so far this season, including during that span, has been defending opposing guards.

“It’s the guy guarding the basketball,” Martin said of the team’s defensive struggles. “As a coach all you can do is prepare your team for the structure that you’re going to have to defend, so you understand where they’re coming from. And then it’s accountability, they’re going to come screen you, okay? Are you going to melt in the screen, or are you going to get through the screen? And we’re melting right now…

“We need guys to take ownership and guard off the dribble right now, that’s why our defense has been bad. It’s hard to help if the guy guarding the ball has no fight in him. Right now, people are just attacking us from every guard spot and going at us off the bounce. And it’s hard to fix in practice because we’re not good off the bounce offensively, we just struggle driving the basketball.”

Not all was bad for UMass against the Hawks, though. Matt Cross has been the team’s key player despite UMass’ poor run off form. He had a 14-point, 10-rebound double-double against the Hawks, adding five assists and four steals to his name.

The other bright spot on Saturday, Diggins’ performance is encouraging and a sign of his ability to potentially run the offense without Fernandes. Along with his career-high 15 points, he added three offensive rebounds, a couple of assists and two steals in his most efficient shooting night yet.

“Not a good experience [because of the loss], but it was fun to get loose a little bit,” Diggins said of playing in front of friends and family. “But I think I could’ve done that the whole game, and if I would have, we would’ve came out with a win. I’m not too happy with it, but I’ll take it.”

The Minutemen will face Richmond on Wednesday, Jan. 25th to continue A-10 play at home. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.

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