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

UMass men’s basketball 2023-24 roster preview

Minutemen return three scholarship players
Kalina Kornacki
Daily Collegian (2023)

For his second year in charge of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team, head coach Frank Martin will once again have an almost entirely new roster to mold into a competitive team.

Last year the Minutemen started the season 7-1, but it all went downhill with injuries across the board. A blowout loss to Richmond in the first round of the conference tournament capped a 15-16 effort. There was a lot of talent in that team. Noah Fernandes was a star at point guard when healthy, RJ Luis one of the best freshmen in the conference and Matt Cross good enough to be the No. 1 option of an Atlantic 10 team.

But just three out of 12 scholarship players return for year two under Martin, with Cross the only high-end contributor sticking around. Among the biggest losses are guards Fernandes, Luis and T.J. Weeks, big men Wildens Leveque, Isaac Kante and Dyondre Dominguez, and freshman Tafara Gapare, one of UMass’ most highly touted freshmen ever. UMass lost five of its top six scorers, including four players to high-major conferences.

“Basically, the reason I got into coaching was to develop people, to build relationships to help people grow,” Martin said. “Growth doesn’t happen overnight. Growth doesn’t happen in a one-year window. Growth takes time, and growth takes commitment while things are good and while things are bad, and in this new world that we’re in I just got to be at peace that only certain people are going to stay the course long enough to see real growth.

“Since watching people grow is what’s always triggered me and gets me out of bed to do my job, I can’t put my personal ways ahead of building a team or a program.”

A-10 media believes this group has something to prove, placing the Minutemen 13th in the preseason poll, but Martin has at least built a team full of character and energy.

“Their ability to retain information is really good, their ability to compete, it’s a highly competitive group of guys,” Martin said. “They celebrate each other’s success. It’s not a ‘let me do my thing’ kind of team. It’s like, ‘this is what we do’ kind of team … They got a lot of positive traits, man, and it’s exciting to put a practice plan together.”

The returners

The three who remain are all primed for a considerable role in their second seasons with the Minutemen, starting with Cross, a preseason All-Atlantic 10 Third Team nominee, and the two returning guards Keon Thompson and Rahsool Diggins.

“They’re all better,” Martin said of the returning trio. “They’ve all made themselves better players, which means I got to continue to help them to grow. All three are in a much better place mentally, not just physically. And there’s a comfort level from me to them and them to me, that I think is important.”

Cross comes in as the center piece of the squad, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound versatile forward who can play anywhere from 2-to-5. He has the handles of a guard with the strength of a forward and is one of the best three-point shooters on the team.

The Beverly, Massachusetts native averaged 12.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game last season, leading the team in all categories (Fernandes doesn’t qualify due to games played).

Cross was hospitalized due to illness midway through conference play, missed two games, came back against Davidson and scored a season-high 28 points in the loss — despite reportedly losing 17 to 18 pounds in the days prior. He suffered a grade-2 MCL sprain three games later, but still managed to come back for the regular season finale.

Martin calls him the spirit and personality of the team and argues his injuries were part of the reason UMass’ season derailed in A-10 play. Cross is now back and in a much better space mentally and physically, per Martin, raising the floor of this team.

“I would say the main things [I’ve worked on over the offseason] was just in the weight room, you know, get my body right to avoid injuries and stuff like that with [Sports Performance Coach Tony Regueira],” Cross said, “and then Frank and the coaches helping me become more of a vocal leader with a young group.”

Keon Thompson was thrown into the fire as a freshman due to Fernandes and Diggins’ injuries, shouldering a mountain of responsibility he never expected to have. He got better for it, earning an amount of praise Martin didn’t give to any other young player on the team.

With that responsibility now taken off his shoulders, Thompson can play freely and build on his averages of 5.8 points and 2.7 assists per game. He must, however, improve on his 37.6 percent from the field and 17.6 percent from three numbers.

Now a junior, Diggins has also taken strides over the offseason. He put on muscle and appears to have worked on his shot after burying 3-of-7 three-pointers in the Minutemen’s exhibition win over Western Connecticut State.

Diggins averaged 4.7 points and 2.3 assists per game last year, and like Thompson, must shoot more efficiently than 34 percent from the field and 36 percent on free throws.

“I’m excited that all three have been unbelievable leaders here in the preseason in different ways,” Martin said, “but the one thing that they’ve all done consistently is the sense of urgency that they approach everyday with.”

Key additions

With eight new additions to the squad and Martin liking a deep rotation, it’s hard to know which of the new players will step up or have big roles from the start, but these four catch the eye:

Senior forward Josh Cohen, freshman guard Jaylen Curry, freshman wing Robert Davis Jr. and sophomore forward Daniel Hankins-Sanford.

A transfer from Saint Francis (Pa.), Cohen was the Northeast Conference Co-Player of the Year and the 10th leading scorer in the country last season. He chose UMass over schools like Florida, Penn State and Iowa, and is exactly what the Minutemen needed offensively.

“[Cohen] is really talented,” Martin said. “He knows how to put that ball in the basket … We were one of the worst teams in the country last year at field goal percentage in the paint. The one thing Josh does is he gets in the paint and he figures out a way to get points. So hopefully it’s something that continues and I know that was, when the season ended, something that I felt that we needed to fix.”

The 6-foot-10 forward averaged 21.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game while making 58.5 percent of his shots. Concerns about the level of competition Cohen faced in the NEC are eased by his performances against his strongest opponents: a 30-point game against Final Four-bound Miami, 18 against Ohio State, a couple of 40-point performances over Lehigh and Hawaii, and 21 against St. Bonaventure shows he can do it in the A-10 too.

Curry and Davis are both three-star recruits bringing some more offensive firepower to Martin’s backcourt.

A Charlotte, North Carolina native, Curry was recruited by schools like Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida State, Xavier and more. He looks dangerous in transition and poised as the primary ballhandler.

Curry can also offer something UMass didn’t really have last year: someone quick enough to beat his man off the dribble consistently, collapsing the defense and making the right decisions at the rim.

With a personality so outgoing he’s already famous in Amherst, Davis also brings to the table a much-needed skillset: lethal three-point shooting. UMass struggled mightily with shot-making last season. Nicknamed “The Natural,” Davis can provide that.

The 6-foot-6 wing considers himself one of the best shooters in the nation. He led the game in scoring with 20 points on 6-for-12 from deep in the exhibition game.

“Now they both have to continue to learn as we go through the early parts of their freshman year, because they’re both going to have big roles on our team,” Martin said of Curry and Davis. “They’ll learn, we’ll help them, and both those guys are positive spirits and really competitive. So, I expect both of them to really, really adapt to college here as the season gets going next week.”

Following Martin’s trajectory from South Carolina to UMass, sophomore forward Daniel Hankins-Sanford brings a major boost in athleticism to the Maroon and White frontcourt. At 6-foot-8 and 233 pounds, he’ll get the extended minutes he didn’t get with the Gamecocks in his first year after arriving there as a 247Sports top-150 recruit.

“[Hankins-Sanford is] our best athlete too, you know,” Martin said. “He gets to some balls that no one else on our team can get to because of his athleticism and size.”

Hankins-Sanford was separated from the team for about two months with a stress reaction in his foot and missed preseason entirely. He just returned to full practice and will have some catching up to do before being able to contribute full time.

“I signed him to South Carolina [two years ago] and I couldn’t wait to yell at him there and unfortunately, I didn’t get to coach him last year and then he gets here and so I can’t wait. I got a new guy I get to yell at,” Martin joked.

Positional breakdown

There are stark differences between UMass’ backcourt and frontcourt, with Martin potentially needing to play a guard-heavy rotation due to the number of reliable options he has available at each spot. The backcourt is young, deep and balanced; the frontcourt is really talented but shallow.

Backcourt: Keon Thompson, Rahsool Diggins, Jaylen Curry, Robert Davis Jr., Jayden Ndjigue and Marqui Worthy.

The youth of UMass’ ballhandlers cannot be understated. There are four freshmen, and the two most experienced players, Thompson and Diggins, have only had one season of real playing time.

As for the rookies, Curry and Davis bring great offensive prowess while Ndjigue and Worthy look like defensive-minded players who can also get it done on the other end. Watch out for Ndjigue as a potential revelation, someone who makes all the right plays on both sides of the ball and makes life extremely difficult for opposing offenses.

“I don’t think there’s a single guy on our team that’s had a bad preseason,” Martin said. “So if we go into it, I feel pretty confident in all those guards.”

The biggest question marks surrounding this group are defense and three-point shooting, two problems the Minutemen’s guards faced last year. They’ll also need someone to replace Fernandes’ leadership and ability to take over games, but it’d be unreasonable to expect as such from a group so young.

Frontcourt: Matt Cross, Josh Cohen, Daniel Hankins-Sanford, Tarique Foster and Mathok Majok.

This unit is top heavy with question marks on defense and rebounding, but Cohen and Cross alone make it one of the best starting frontcourts in the conference.

Perhaps the elephant in the room for this team, a severe lack of frontcourt depth could put UMass in some disadvantageous positions this season, especially after it was announced that 6-foot-10 recruit Sawyer Mayhugh wouldn’t join the team after all.

The Minutemen cannot afford injuries or foul trouble up front. Mayhugh’s loss gives 7-foot-3 freshman Majok more minutes he’s not physically ready for, even though Martin said the young center is farther ahead than he thought. Martin may play small-ball lineups with Cross and Hankins-Sanford at the five more often than initially expected.

Hankins-Sanford just now getting healthy further stresses the depth issue, and the lack of options locks Cohen to the center spot for now, washing away his wishes of playing the four.

General outlook and predicted starting lineup

This is a small roster, with 14 players including walk-ons and 11 of 13 scholarship spots filled. There’s a lot of depth but not much high-end talent at the guard spots, and not much depth but strong starters at the forward positions.

Martin believes the team takes good shots and takes care of the ball but has expressed concern about defensive rebounding and foul trouble.

At least at the start of the season, expect him to lean on experience. Lineups will probably change as the season goes on, but if Hankins-Sanford is healthy and ready he’ll probably slot in with the starters, sliding Cross to the three and keeping the freshmen on the bench early on.

That means Keon Thompson should start at point guard with Rahsool Diggins playing off the ball a bit more as the two (like he did in the exhibition game), Matt Cross at small forward, Daniel Hankins-Sanford as the power forward and Josh Cohen in the center spot. The freshman trio of Jaylen Curry, Robert Davis Jr. and Jayden Ndjigue are the next men up.

It’d be a large and strong starting five, but with defense, rebounding and 3-point shooting concerns, the freshmen must get ready to go sooner rather than later to balance it all out. It helps that the team went on an international trip to Puerto Rico over the summer, getting a few extra games against pros to help with their preparation and maturity.

All in all, guessing starters might be a trivial game because Martin plays everyone. Last year the Minutemen led the country in bench minutes percentage with 46 percent — and this year could be similar. Despite the young and inexperienced roster, Martin can and will rely on everyone to step in and do their jobs.

“I don’t think there’s a guy on our team that if we had a game tomorrow that I’d be like, ‘eh I don’t know if he’s ready to play,’” Martin said, especially of the freshmen. “Every one of them has earned some form of trust from me to be able to put them in a game. And that’s a credit to them and their [high school] coaches.”

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

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