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 looks to get back on track Saturday against UMass-Lowell

River Hawks beat Minutemen by five last season
Jonathan Shi
Daily Collegian (2023)

Coming off a road loss against Towson in which the Massachusetts men’s basketball team trailed the entire contest, UMass (4-2) returns home for an in-state rivalry game against UMass Lowell on Saturday.

The Minutemen’s defense struggled mightily against Towson and the offense couldn’t get going either, unable to cut down on the hosts’ lead in the second half despite Keon Thompson’s 19 second-half points.

“[Towson] was a learning experience,” Thompson said, “With us having so many freshmen, a lot of guys aren’t used to that type of adversity and what it takes to win road games this year …  It’s just a learning experience for all of us honestly, just as growing as a team, building chemistry through each other through the tough moments. Honestly, I’m not really worried about this, I know we’re going to bounce back.”

UMass has a chance to get back on track against the River Hawks (6-2), but it will be as tough a matchup as any of the Minutemen’s games so far. There are stark differences regarding the state of the two rosters. UMass has a young, brand-new squad while UMass Lowell has an experienced team full of returners.

“They’ve got six super seniors,” Minutemen head coach Frank Martin said. “They got five juniors, six seniors. They’re old, and Pat [Duquette has] done an incredible job of building a program there. They’re good … We got our hands full, we got to make sure we play well.”

Lowell brought back eight players from last year’s 28-6 team, with seven of them now the team’s top seven leading scorers.

Martin’s group needs to find an answer in two key departments that concerned him going into the season: defensive rebounding and interior defense.

Along with that, opposing ball handlers have also given the Minutemen fits. Towson starting guards Christian May and Dylan Williamson combined for 44 points against UMass last Wednesday, and Harvard guard Malik Mack dropped 32 on the Minutemen a couple of weeks earlier.

“Well, we had to fix our defense,” Martin said of what’s been the focus in practice. “Our ball screen defense was embarrassingly bad [against Towson], and so we got to fix it. And it’s not broken, we’ve done it the right way. We just didn’t do it very well in the last two games. So we’ve had to clean that up and refocus on the fundamentals of what we try to do defensively.”

Lowell’s guard-forward duo of Ayinde Hikim and Abdoul Karim Coulibaly will test that.

Hikim started the season scorching hot and looks to have taken the next step in the scoring department. The 5th-year guard is averaging 19.8 points and 5.1 assists per game on 41.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

His partner in the pick-and-roll, Coulibaly, has missed the last three games with an injury but is trending to play Saturday. The former Pittsburgh and Saint Bonaventure forward broke out in an expanded role last season for the River Hawks, averaging 11.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. If he suits up, the UMass frontcourt will have a much tougher time stopping baskets in the paint.

Lowell’s supporting cast offers strength in numbers, as five River Hawks average between seven and 10 points per game. One of those five is Yuri Covington, a senior guard from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania who scored 12 points in last year’s meeting between Massachusetts’ two Division I state schools. The result of that game: a five-point Lowell victory, its first ever over the Minutemen at the Division I level.

For UMass to win Saturday, its interior defense and free throw shooting needs to take a step forward. Heading into this matchup, the Minutemen rank 344th in FTA/FGA (free throws attempted per field goal attempted), meaning that they’re one of the bottom 20 teams in the nation when it comes to putting their opponents on the charity stripe. The River Hawks rank 26th in the nation in free throw percentage, converting 77.4 percent of their attempts. UMass ranks among the bottom 20 teams in that metric as well, making 61.2 percent of free throws.

Lowell is also 341st in the nation in 3-point rate, shooting only 21.1 percent of its field goals from beyond the arc. The River Hawks love to run their offense below the three-point line and into the paint, which could spell trouble for UMass’ frontcourt.

In the Minutemen backcourt, Thompson will be called upon to put in another solid performance, as the sophomore guard will likely get the Hikim assignment for at least some of the game. Defense was Thompson’s main selling point last season, but through UMass’ first six games, the guard has showcased improved scoring abilities as well.

“[Thompson has] started to figure out college basketball,” Martin said. “Last year, if I would have challenged him, he would have not been defeated but he would have dropped his head. This year, I challenged him at halftime and he came out and handled it like a champ … he’s grown tremendously as a person and as a player.”

This season, Thompson’s currently shooting nearly 13 percentage points higher at the rim than he did last season (51.5 to 64 percent) and has seen bumps in nearly every meaningful statistical category.

“My confidence [has improved],” Thompson said. “I’m getting more comfortable out there. It doesn’t feel static anymore, it’s more so dynamic, just flowing at this point. I know what I’m capable of, I’m not really too shy [in] the moment, I’m all about it. Regardless of what’s going down in the game, I feel confident in my scoring abilities.”

Saturday’s in-state matchup tips off at noon on ESPN+.

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

Dean Wendel can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @DeanWende1.

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