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Luwane Pipkins has become the face and heart of the UMass men’s basketball program

  • UMass guard Luwane Pipkins was disillusioned by the coaching change and search process following last season. The sophomore guard chose to return this season and has since become the face and heart of the men’s basketball program. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • UMass guard Luwane Pipkins, left, has become the face and heart of the UMass men’s basketball program. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass guard Luwane Pipkins, right, has become the face and heart of the UMass men’s basketball program. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • UMass guard Luwane Pipkins, center, has become the face and heart of the UMass men’s basketball program. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass guard Luwane Pipkins, right, has become the face and heart of the UMass men’s basketball program. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • UMass guard Luwane Pipkins, right, has become the face and heart of the UMass men’s basketball program. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass guard Luwane Pipkins, right, has become the face and heart of the UMass men’s basketball program. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • UMass guard Luwane Pipkins, left, has become the face and heart of the UMass men’s basketball program. DAVID JABLONSKI

  • UMass guard Luwane Pipkins, right, has become the face and heart of the UMass men’s basketball program. DAVID JABLONSKI

  • UMass guard Luwane Pipkins, center, has become the face and heart of the UMass men’s basketball program. DAVID JABLONSKI



@MattVautourDHG
Thursday, February 08, 2018

AMHERST — Late in the second half of UMass’ Jan. 10 comeback win over La Salle, coach Matt McCall summoned Luwane Pipkins to him.

“Will you tell Carl to take the layup, please?” McCall said. Pipkins, who was in the midst of a school-record 44-point performance, nodded, jogged over to Pierre and delivered the message.

McCall thought that Pierre, his freshman guard, had been too often settling for jumpers. McCall knew Pierre trusted Pipkins and would listen to him. He trusted Pipkins would convey the right message.

The moment was an illustration of just how far the relationship between Pipkins and McCall has evolved.

It started on shaky ground. Like many of his teammates, Pipkins was disillusioned by the sequence of events that followed his freshman season. Derek Kellogg, the coach who’d recruited him, had been fired, and Pat Kelsey, who had been hired to replace Kellogg, changed his mind abruptly and left. Pipkins would have been frosty toward whoever had been hired next and wasn’t welcoming to McCall at first.

“I told him I don’t trust nobody at this moment right now,” Pipkins said. “I was in a dark place at the time. I wasn’t really caring about much. I just went home and had time to think, clear my mind and talk to my father about stuff.”

McCall flew to Chicago on May 19 to talk to Pipkins and his family. The coach laid out what he required from the 5-foot-11 guard on and off the court and left the meeting uncertain.

“I was brutally honest with him about a lot of different things,” McCall said. “I didn’t know if he was going to come back.”

But the sophomore guard returned for the first summer session and things have been moving forward between McCall and Pipkins ever since.

“He showed up in the first summer session and did all the right things and did all things he’s supposed to do academically,” McCall said. “He hasn’t missed a beat since. The growth he’s made to be coachable, to listen, to buy in and do all the right things off the floor. I’ve seen him change as a person, to see him do the things we’re asking him to do every single day. There’s been no pushback since then. Just buy in. Since I got here I respected his talent, his ability and his competitiveness. I saw those things even in workouts. When he made the decision to comeback you could see how he changed.”

Pipkins said McCall’s presence and honesty that rainy afternoon in Chicago convinced him to get on board and he’s glad he did.

“I love what it is. Matt’s a great coach. It meant a lot that he came to my house, kept bonding with me and let me know what I was going to have to do and what the team was going to be,” he said. “We’ve built a relationship. I love him. He’s a great coach. He’s a cool dude off the court. I have to keep doing what I’m doing and he’ll keep gaining my trust. He’s an honest dude. He believed it me. I believed in him. We just connected. He told me to go out every day, play hard, keep a positive attitude.”

That attitude has produced results. Pipkins was a willing shooter a year ago, but not nearly as reliable doing it, as his scoring average has jumped from 10.2 per game to 20.5, which is second in the Atlantic 10 and makes him a strong candidate for most improved player honors.

Pipkins has made more 3-pointers already this year (73) than in all of 2016-17 (71) despite 45 fewer attempts (178 vs. 223). His 41.0 percent shooting from behind the arc is eighth in the Atlantic 10. He’s been more effective driving to the basket and getting his shot off in traffic. The threat of that has given him more open looks from outside.

Entering the season, it was Rashaan Holloway who was expected to be the face of the Minuteman program. But even before the junior big man was academically ineligible, Pipkins had become the Minutemen’s clear alpha. Starting with his clutch shooting against Harvard, he’s proven both willing and capable of putting the team on his back when the situation called for it.

When Pipkins first arrived on campus, Kellogg predicted he would be a leader, even during his academic redshirt year in 2015-16. He’s only a sophomore but he’s fulfilling that prediction both vocally and by example.

“His competitiveness is what separates him,” McCall said. “In practice, he messed up guarding a certain action a couple times. The next time he guarded it right and I pulled him off the floor to give him a rest and he said ‘Nope I gotta guard it again.’ That says a lot about where he’s at and what he’s trying to do.”

He wants to be the cornerstone of UMass’ next rise.

“At the end of the day I have to lead my team and keep my team together. I need to be the player my team needs to me to be, and my coach needs me to be,” he said. “We want to get this program back to where it’s supposed to be.”

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