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Matt Vautour: Year-long bumpy road shapes UMass’ future

  • Luwane Pipkins, of UMass, celebrates during an Atlantic 10 Tournament game against George Mason, Thursday at the Capitol One Arena in Washington, D.C. Mitchell Leff/Atlantic 10 Conference

  • Unique McLean, left, of UMass, dunks against George Mason during their Atlantic 10 Tournament game, Thursday at the Capitol One Arena in Washington, D.C. Mitchell Leff/Atlantic 10 Conference



@MattVautourDHG
Thursday, March 08, 2018

WASHINGTON

Friday marks exactly one year since UMass fired Derek Kellogg moments after the men’s basketball team lost in the Atlantic 10 Tournament in Pittsburgh.

It feels like more than that. So much has happened since then, it’s almost hard to believe it was all crammed into 365 days.

Thursday’s 80-75 season-ending loss to George Mason was just last in a long list of events that shaped the year and will continue to shape UMass’ program going forward.

Two weeks after Kellogg’s dismissal, the Minutemen were set to unveil Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey as their next head coach. A crowd showed up for his introductory press conference, but he wasn’t among them as he had a change of heart and returned to Winthrop.

For days he and the Minutemen were punch lines. It’s impossible to know what Kelsey would have done and how the program’s fortunes might have been different had he followed though and taken the job.

But a week later, Matt McCall showed up for his introductory press conference and has been a fit ever since despite dealing with some challenging situations.

Seven players transferred. Donte Clark, who was on pace to leave as one of the top five scorers in program history, took advantage of the graduate transfer rule, as did Zach Coleman, Zach Lewis and Seth Berger. DeJon Jarreau and Brison Gresham, the much-hyped Louisiana duo who was expected to be the foundation for the program’s future, and athletic wing Ty Flowers were gone too.

Jaylen Brantley, a Maryland transfer who was expected to help the Minutemen remain competitive, was diagnosed with a heart condition ending his career before the season started. Halfway through the season UMass lost Rashaan Holloway, who was expected to be the focal point of the program, to academic ineligibility and down the stretch it lost Chris Baldwin to season-ending leg surgery.

Heading into the season, the Minutemen looked headed for a down year. A 13-20 record is nobody’s goal even with the depth problems. But there were lots of high points. They upset Providence and Georgia, and won at Dayton. Even when the lineup featured two former managers and a loaner football player, UMass was competitive on most nights.

Luwane Pipkins, who’d been promising a year ago, emerged as a star. He became the third player in program history to score 1,000 points in his first two seasons, joining all-time leading scorer Jim McCoy and Hall of Famer Julius Erving. He broke the single-game scoring record with 44 points against La Salle.

More than that, he embraced being a leader and the face of the program.

Carl Pierre, who had chosen UMass over prep school, turned out to be a steal. He averaged 12.4 points per game and shot 47.2 percent from 3-point range. From someone who had no Division I offers as a high school senior, he looks like a future all-conference player.

Malik Hines went from a spare part during his first two years to one of the conference’s more reliable defensive centers.

The next 365 days figure to be different. UMass will start the year with both expectations and optimism. The Minutemen will add four transfers and at least two freshmen. McCall will install his up-tempo running and pressing style. Pipkins will be one of the favorites to be Atlantic 10 player of the year.

They’re already motivated.

“A lot of guys are eager to get back in the gym,” Pierre said. “Next year we’re going to use this feeling to try to get better.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage