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

Wendel: For UMass basketball, grit is the theme

The Minutemen continue to outwork teams in victories
Jonathan Shi
Daily Collegian (2023)

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team notched its 10th victory of the season Wednesday, defeating the Duquesne Dukes (9-4, 0-1 Atlantic 10) 80-61 in both teams’ first conference matchup.

For UMass (10-3, 1-0 A-10), the game wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. Josh Cohen racked up three fouls in the first half, with his fourth coming just a few minutes after halftime. The Minutemen’s leading scorer finished with two points and five fouls in just 15 minutes of action. Matt Cross looked doubtful to return at halftime after he picked up two injuries in the first half, but the senior leader returned.

One member of the UMass front court plagued with foul trouble; another member plagued with injuries. More adversity for the Minutemen. What else is new?

Just like they’ve done all season long, head coach Frank Martin’s squad has battled this adversity, and more often than not, they’ve come out on top. Against South Florida, UMass had its worst offensive night of the season to date. Didn’t matter: the team dug its heels in on defense, assuring that the Bulls would have an even worse night shooting than they did. The Minutemen won by ten.

Against West Virginia in Springfield, a 15-point halftime lead by UMass had been reduced to one by the Mountaineers. With the offense going cold and a large West Virginia contingent making their voices heard, past Minutemen squads would have faltered under pressure over the game’s concluding minutes. Not the 2023-24 team. They collected themselves, ran their offense like usual and made key baskets down the stretch to ensure an eight-point victory.

On Wednesday night, UMass responded emphatically to its early issues. Even with Cohen playing limited minutes, a modern style of bully ball was still UMass’ preferred playstyle, and it was effective against Duquesne.

“Just really proud with how we defended today,” Martin said. “I thought we were guarding the three-point line. The problem was that we weren’t finishing defensive possessions with defensive rebounds, and we cleaned that up in the second half.”

Inside scoring continued to rule the day on offense, and the Minutemen finished with over half of their points (42) coming from the paint. Keon Thompson, Jayden Ndjigue and Cross each had their moments at the rim, slicing past Dukes defenders and converting on opportunities.

“Everything we did [Wednesday] was trying to move the ball and space them to try and drive it,” Martin said. “Our guys did it.”

54.9 percent of UMass’ points this season have come from two-point shots, a mark that ranks in the top 100 nationally. This Minutemen team will not barrage teams with threes: they will wear you down in the paint and attack you at the rim instead.

Rebounding has been another strength of UMass thus far. While Wednesday’s numbers didn’t pop off the stat sheet, the Minutemen still out rebounded their opponent for the ninth time in 13 games this season. The offensive glass has been the team’s X-factor: 35.9 percent of the team’s rebounds have come from that end of the floor which ranks 27th nationwide.

Rebounding and shot selection statistics tell part of the story, but no stat reflects just how scrappy UMass has been this season like the turnover stat. You’ll find a Minutemen unit that ranks among the top 40 in forcing turnovers by opposing teams. UMass hounds on defense, with its intense on-ball pressure and pursuance of steals stifling many teams in 2023-24. Duquesne suffered 14 turnovers at the hands of the Minutemen, a number above its original season average of 11.5.

Long-time college basketball fans shouldn’t be surprised that UMass excels in these areas this season. All of the stats I previously mentioned have been the cornerstones of nearly every Frank Martin team since the 57-year-old became a Division I head coach.

Some other stats: Martin-coached teams typically get a majority of their points from two-pointers. It’s been five years since that wasn’t the case. Over 17 years of coaching, Martin has never had a team rank below 67th in the nation when it came to offensive rebounding percentage. Most notably, last year’s Minutemen were the worst team Martin’s ever had when it came to creating turnovers. They, along with Frank’s 2012-13 South Carolina team (his first year at the school) are his only two rosters that didn’t rank in the top 100 nationally in turnover percentage.

Last year’s UMass roster did not play Martin’s brand of basketball. He won’t explicitly say that, but he has been more vocal this season about how much he loves to coach his 2023-24 group.

On Wednesday, we again saw the fruits of Martin’s labor, watching a Minutemen team that battled through adversity and seemingly just wanted to win more than its opponent. UMass now ranks sixth highest in the A-10 on KenPom, exceeding preseason expectations. If that ranking holds or even goes up, we’ll know the reasons why.

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

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