On Jan. 5, 2017, Fairfield’s Curtis Cobb turned the heads of college basketball fans around the country when he put up 46 points against Manhattan. He earned Player of the Week of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for the game, which was, as his biography on the Fairfield University Athletics page proudly notes, broadcasted on ESPN3.
A year and a half later, after transferring from Fairfield and redshirting his junior year, Cobb is preparing to take the court for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team, the alma mater of Marcus Camby and Julius Erving.
As the Minutemen gear up for what is expected to be a crucial step forward in the second year of the Matt McCall era, much will hinge on whether or not Cobb can step into the starting lineup and add a missing piece to the UMass offense.
“He’s proven he can score,” McCall said. “The reason he came here was to try and be a part of a championship team, and he wants to win. I respect that a lot about Curt.”
Heading into the 2018-19 season, a lot of the focus around UMass will be on the influx of “McCall’s guys.” Between three new freshmen and four transfers coming off redshirt seasons, this year will be the first year for McCall to lead a team with his own personnel.
One of those new personnel is Cobb, who McCall recruited soon after he was hired as head coach. Cobb was impressed by the respect McCall showed him in the process, which factored into his decision to transfer to UMass.
“He came to my house one of the first weeks he started recruiting me, he met my mom, then the second time he brought one of the assistants when he came to my house,” Cobb said. “Just constantly showing up to my house, that’s important to me, to come to where I live and recruit me.”
A Massachusetts native, Cobb started his collegiate career in Connecticut, where he started 50 games for Fairfield and averaged 11.5 points per game.
After starting the first 22 games of his sophomore year, Cobb fell out of the starting lineup in the final stretch, during which Fairfield went 5-4 but lost its first game in the MAAC tournament. A month later, Cobb announced his intention to transfer to UMass.
Per NCAA rules, Cobb had to redshirt a year after transferring, and he watched as the Minutemen struggled with injuries, suspensions and lack of depth to lose 11 of the final 13 games of the 2017-18 regular season.
“It was tough, but it was also a blessing too,” Cobb said. “It was tough to watch those guys play, but it was also a blessing to be able to watch those guys and build that hunger that I lost from playing the last two years. The year sitting out really helped me want to play basketball again more.”
Cobb is expected to be a steadying presence for the young UMass team. With sensational returners Luwane Pipkins and Carl Pierre headlining the offense, Cobb will get the call as a third scoring threat to take pressure off those two.
“[He’s] definitely somebody that can go out there and make plays for us, get a lot of points,” fellow transfer Jonathan Laurent said. “When he’s on, he’s on.”
Pipkins, considered a candidate for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, is a dynamic point guard who recorded 21.1 points per game last year en route to being named to Second Team All-Conference.
UMass will revolve around Pipkins, and Cobb’s ability to complement the junior guard will be key in opening up the Minutemen on offense. In UMass’ open exhibition on Oct. 30, the two looked very comfortable playing together, as Cobb’s first two defensive rebounds set up Pipkins for five points in the first four minutes. Pipkins earned an assist on Cobb’s 3-pointer midway through the first half, just a minute after Cobb missed his first 3-point attempt.
“He encourages me to take shots,” Cobb said of Pipkins. “He never thinks I can take a bad shot, and he’s always encouraging me, ‘Next shot, next shot.’ He’s always trying to find me and get me going.”
The chemistry on the court is aided by friendship off it, as Cobb and Pipkins have been rooming together the last two years and Cobb said they spend nearly 24 hours a day together.
“Last year, me, Malik [Hines], [Cobb] and Pip stayed in the same house, so we really got close last year,” Laurent said. “This year, me, him and Keon [Clergeot], we all live in the same house with Pip, so we see each other every day. It’s like a brotherhood between us four.”
Unlike Pipkins and Pierre, who mainly function as scoring threats, Cobb is a more versatile player who offers a wide range of skills for the Minutemen. In his first competitive appearance in the Mullins Center, Cobb recorded 11 points, three rebounds and a steal in 21 minutes of action against Westfield State.
All three of Cobb’s rebounds came on the defensive end, as he pulled down defensive boards to end two of Westfield State’s first three possessions.
“That’s what I do,” Cobb said. “I had five rebounds [per game] my sophomore year. That’s a huge thing [McCall] wants me to do, because I have a knack for rebounds, honestly. Just trying to do little things like that, keep myself in the game, keep me going if shots aren’t falling.”
Arguably the greatest thing that Cobb brings to the table is his ability to “make the right play,” a phrase McCall used several times to describe the redshirt junior. That trait stands out for a UMass team McCall frequently criticized for shot selection in the preseason, and McCall singled out Cobb for his patience and decision-making in the exhibition.
“You can put Curtis in a pick-and-roll and he’ll make the right play,” McCall said after the exhibition. “He lost Sy [Chatman] a couple times late, and he had a couple turnovers, but I thought he was playing the game the right way, especially early. He didn’t try to force anything.”
Laurent echoed his coach’s praise of Cobb’s basketball IQ.
“Very good passer, sneaky rebounder, sneaky athlete,” Laurent said. “Just knowing how to make the right play, like coach always says about him. He knows the right play to make. So we’re just looking for him to be a good playmaker and a good scorer for us.”
This offseason, Cobb bulked up in order to better defend against A-10 competition and pull down more rebounds. He’s listed 10 pounds heavier than his playing weight at Fairfield, which Laurent cited as the one improvement he’d seen.
“He’s always had game, had the head fake, had the shot, could get to his spot,” Laurent said. “Just putting some body weight on and just getting stronger in the offseason.”
Whether or not the extra weight makes a difference, Cobb’s game should add stability to the Minutemen, especially in games where Pipkins and Pierre are slowed down by an opposing press. Cobb will be the third shooter, the second- or third-best defender and reliably good on both ends of the court.
“Curt’s super talented,” Pierre said. “He can shoot the ball, he can pass the ball, he defends. He’s going to be super fun to play with. He should have a good year. The guy just does it all.”