Time for UMass men’s basketball to take a leap forward By: Thomas Haines

Year two under coach Matt McCall comes with great expectations.

In his first season, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team stumbled down the stretch, losing 11 of the last 13 in the regular season and winning just one of 12 games on the road all year. In the Atlantic 10 tournament, UMass bested mediocre La Salle in the first round before a second-round exit against George Mason.

This year, that won’t cut it. Reinforced by a wave of transfers and freshmen, UMass has the depth it lacked last year and the personnel to execute McCall’s scheme. The time has come for the program to take a step forward.

How big a step?

“Obviously we have goals, we have things that we want to achieve,” McCall said. “We want to be playing late into the tournament, we don’t want to go home Wednesday or Thursday, we want to be playing Saturday or Sunday. But I think we need to continue to grow, we need to grow as a program, we’ve got to keep things in perspective of where we were when we got here to where we are now.”

Or, as redshirt junior Curtis Cobb put it: “Honestly, I think we can win the A-10 tournament. It’s going to be hard, but I think we have enough talent, enough bodies.”

That talent begins with junior Luwane Pipkins, who had a breakout year for the Minutemen last season, averaging 21 points per game and making Second Team All-Conference, but his impact went far beyond the stats and accolades. His dominance opened up the rest of the floor for a UMass team mostly devoid of scoring threats, and in just his second season he was leading the Minutemen both on and off the court.

Luwane Pipkins

Beside him is Carl Pierre, looking to build on a solid freshman year with a sophomore leap of his own, and Rashaan Holloway, now in his fifth year and aiming to end his UMass career on a high note.

While Pipkins and Pierre are relatively known commodities and Holloway is penciled in as the starting center, UMass’ chances of fulfilling those great expectations hinge on the play of the seven incoming players, all of whom are projected to see significant minutes this year.

Foremost in that group are transfers Cobb and Jonathan Laurent, both redshirt juniors whom will likely start in Tuesday’s opener. Both Cobb and Laurent offer solid play on both ends of the court – Cobb is more of a scoring threat, while Laurent can guard all five positions – and they bring veteran leadership to a relatively young team.

“Just being someone who can take some pressure off of Pip,” Cobb said of his role. “Playing the off-ball guy, being able to shoot and being able to put the ball on the floor more than some of our other shooters. So, just giving him another option, giving him a way to catch a breather.”

The other two transfers are Kieran Hayward, a shooting specialist, and Keon Clergeot, a dynamic defender who brings a lot of energy to the court.

Kieran Hayward

Of the three freshmen recruits brought in this year, all three should get playing time this year. Sy Chatman is currently the backup center, but will likely see substantial time when Holloway is on the bench. Samba Diallo, a tremendous athlete, will get looks on the wing, while Tre Wood should see a few minutes per game in relief of Pipkins at the point.

“I think you know that Pipkins and Pierre are going to be out there, because we’ll have to rely on them a lot early here just because of their experience and so many new guys,” McCall said. “I think the game will dictate the other three guys on the floor with them and the other nine to 10 guys that we play. If Rashaan’s in foul trouble, obviously, Sy’s minutes are going to go up, just instinctively there. If [Laurent’s] in foul trouble, now you’re looking at playing Samba more and Kieran more, probably, at the four. So I think the game will dictate that.”

The freshmen bring much-needed depth, which was sorely lacking last year. In the A-10 tournament, Randall West, normally a quarterback on the UMass football team, played crucial minutes at center for the Minutemen.

The center position is still thin behind Holloway, who has historically missed time with conditioning woes, injury or suspension. After Chatman on the depth chart is sophomore Khalea Turner-Morris, who sat on the bench in favor of West against George Mason in the A-10 tournament.

That issue should be resolved mid-year with the arrival of center Djery Baptiste, a graduate transfer from Vanderbilt who is expected to become eligible before the start of A-10 play.

“Dec. 15, 20, whenever we can get him here, Djery Baptiste adds a completely different dimension to our team,” McCall said. “So, would I like to have him here now? No question. But we’ll get to play 18 league games with him in our lineup, that’s over half our season. So I’m not worried about our depth up front at all.”

With seven new players, including two new starters, the biggest question for UMass will be chemistry. While Laurent, Cobb, Clergeot and Hayward have been practicing alongside the others for a year, they haven’t faced game action together yet. Throw in the three freshmen and eventually Baptiste, and the Minutemen will need some time to settle in.

Jonathan Laurent

So far, after a closed-door scrimmage against Siena and an exhibition against Westfield State, McCall’s concerns have revolved around shot selection and defense.

“Shooting’s not equal opportunity,” McCall said. “If Rashaan Holloway shoots a three, is that really a good shot for us? No. If Carl Pierre does, is that a good shot? Yes. Great, so [you can] impact the game in a lot of different ways without just maybe shooting or shooting off the bounce.”

As for the defense, McCall called out the Minutemen for being too “consumed” with scoring in the preseason. In the open exhibition against Westfield State, a Division III school, UMass won 84-60.

“In my opinion, with the personnel that we have, with the athleticism, with our length, there’s no reason why we can’t be a top-50 defensive team in the country with our numbers,” McCall said. “But again, it’s going to take some time, it’s going to take some reps, but it starts with your urgency.”

After Tuesday’s season-opener against UMass Lowell, the Minutemen have four more games at home to open the season, with Harvard as the most imposing opponent in that stretch. The homestand is followed by two neutral-site games in Las Vegas, including a likely showdown with No. 7 Nevada that looms as the toughest game of the non-conference schedule. After struggling on the road last season, UMass has only three true road games in the non-conference slate.

By the time A-10 games start, the Minutemen hope to have ironed out any lingering chemistry and fundamental issues in time to make a run at the conference hierarchy and try to earn a double-bye in the A-10 tournament.

As far as the tournament itself goes, the odds are against UMass in a stacked A-10, but a deep run certainly isn’t out of the question. Saint Louis, Davidson and George Mason are all widely favored to earn a double-bye in the tournament, and there are a number of other teams that could have strong years.

Still, while only Pipkins stacks up to the other stars of the A-10 right now, the depth of talent on the UMass roster will give the Minutemen a chance in the tournament, even if they end up playing three or four days in a row.

With that improved depth and talent comes greater scrutiny, however. UMass isn’t expected to win the A-10 this year, despite Cobb’s optimism, but it is expected to show marked improvement by the end of the year. Now that McCall has his players and a year to implement his scheme, the expectations are higher.

Not too high just yet, but unmistakably higher.

So, what does UMass need to see for the season to be considered a success?

“Definitely an improvement in our record from last year,” Laurent said. “Getting our defensive rating and offensive rating up, getting to the tournament, taking small steps. Seeing what we can do, what’s next, game-by-game. Win the game, win the next game, execute on offense, always seeing improvement. We could improve by the end of the year, and if we don’t have the greatest year this year, next year is going to be our opportunity to come back and have a better year.”

Thomas Haines can be reached at thaines@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @thainessports.

(Photos by Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian)

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