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 completes first 20-win season since 2013-14

Frank Martin, Matt Cross and Josh Cohen the pillars of the turnaround
Jonathan Shi
Daily Collegian (2024)

Around this time last year, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team lost eight of its final 10 games and finished the season 15-16 after getting embarrassed in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament. Almost everyone transferred out. Frank Martin built a team from scratch to go at it again in year two.

Fast forward to March 2024, UMass (20-10, 11-7 A-10) completed a remarkable turnaround to reach its first 20-win season in a decade. The Minutemen survived a tight home game against Fordham in the regular season finale on Wednesday, setting themselves up nicely to earn a double-bye in the conference tournament.

“I’m not very good with reflecting while I still have work going on,” UMass coach Frank Martin said. “As [Wednesday night] unfolds and I eventually disengage from this game, I’m sure I’m going to be really, really proud of our fans, our school… and obviously our players. First time we worked out in the summer, I was like, ‘Ooh, these guys might be fun to be around.’ And it’s never changed.”

The three pillars played the most crucial roles in turning around the program: Frank Martin, Matt Cross and Josh Cohen. Martin helped Cross make himself at home. Martin showed Cohen a vision to bring him to Amherst. The coach kept building a positive environment by establishing non-negotiables, focusing on strong habits and staying away from results-based analysis. Once he did that, things fell into place. Cross and Cohen did their part as stars of the Atlantic 10.

In a way, the win against the Rams (12-18- 6-11 A-10) encapsulated many aspects of the season for this team: It wasn’t pretty at times and it certainly wasn’t perfect, but they came through at the end with Cross coming alive in the clutch, Cohen carrying much of the offensive load when needed and Rahsool Diggins hitting valuable 3-pointers. Those three led the team in scoring throughout the season and stepped up once again on Wednesday, even more crucially in the absence of starting point guard Keon Thompson.

“I’ve never played in a 20-win team in my life, I’m so happy,” Cohen said. “I don’t even know what to say to be honest with you. I’m so happy that this group is able to do it. We’ve worked hard all year.”

“I’ve never played in a 20-win team in college,” Cross said. “This group works hard, so it feels good, but it also feels earned with this group. Because these young guys and these new guys like Josh came in and changed the program.”

Throughout the entire season, UMass showed maturity beyond its years. Every time the Minutemen faced adversity, they stood back up and answered. They were 9-1 when coming off losses. The young group grew together in their enjoyment for one another, while playing every top team in the A-10 to one-possession games late. Now if VCU loses at No. 25 Dayton on Friday, UMass will earn a top-four seed in the tournament for the first time since 2008.

“This group just has fight,” Cross said. “There’s so many teams in the country when they get hit or the other team goes on a run, they just crack… There’s always a fight with this team, and everybody is bought in. I feel like we developed kind of a culture here, everyone’s kind of bought in with Frank and Frank is the one who has brought that culture over. But that’s just what he does, he’s a program builder.”

According to UMass director of athletics Ryan Bamford, when Bamford met with Martin to recruit him as the Minutemen’s new head coach, Martin said he’d get UMass back in the top four or five teams in the A-10 in two years, then they’d revisit discussions of the progress made.

Two years is what it took.

Fordham head coach Keith Urgo, also in his second year in charge of an A-10 program, commended Martin for his work in Amherst.

“I just want to say congrats to coach Martin, his staff, his team,” Urgo said. “Man are they tough and physical. He’s been so good to me since I became a head coach, he’s the type of leader of men that I want to become. I couldn’t respect a head coach more in this country than coach Martin.”

If VCU beats Dayton, UMass will be the No. 5 seed and face the winner between No. 12 and No. 13. But if the Rams lose, the Minutemen will move to the top four and skip two rounds of games.

“Any game we’ve lost has been so close, I think we can go win this thing, and that’s kind of like the only place where my mind is at,” Cross said. “Some people are getting picky [about seeding], I don’t really care who we play, it doesn’t matter either way because I think we can beat anybody. So I’m just excited to try to go win this thing.”

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

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