Matt Vautour: UMass basketball in flux after New Orleans duo departs

  • Freshman DeJon Jarreau, top, of UMass, passes amid Rider defenders, during the regular season at the Mullins Center. Jarreau announced his intention to transfer on Wednesday. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass freshman Dejon Jarreau, left, goes in for a shot under pressure from Kennesaw State’s Nick Masterson during the regular season in Amherst. Jarreau announced his intention to transfer on Wednesday. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jeff Dowtin, right, of URI, strips the ball from DeJon Jarreau, of UMass, Tuesday at the Mullins Center. Jarreau, a freshman, announced his intention to transfer on Wednesday. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Less than six months ago, the UMass men’s basketball program looked poised for something special. Now, after cornerstone freshmen DeJon Jarreau and Brison Gresham decided to leave, the Minutemen are in flux.

In November, the best recruiting class in over 20 years was coming on campus. The new Champions Center practice facility had the Minutemen better positioned to compete in the facility arms race than they’d ever been.

The future sure looked bright and an 11-4 nonconference record did little to dampen the enthusiasm. But the Minutemen stumbled in conference play, going 4-14 in the Atlantic 10 to finish 15-18. Moments after the season was over coach Derek Kellogg was fired.

The hope both among the school’s administrators and its fans who were vocal on social media, was that the players would stay even without Kellogg, and the next coach would thrive with a full cupboard.

At the press conference announcing new coach Matt McCall, both McCall and athletic director Ryan Bamford praised the talent of the players in the program as they looked on from the front couple rows. The message wasn’t subtle — please stay.

When Zach Lewis, Zach Coleman and Seth Berger left, people weren’t worried. Even when Donte Clark declared for the NBA draft and didn’t rule out transferring if he pulled out of the draft, most people were confident the team could be good quick if the freshmen and sophomores hung around.

Now Gresham and Jarreau, high school teammates from New Orleans, are gone. Will Chris Baldwin and Ty Flowers want to stay without them?

Bamford had to know when he fired Kellogg that he was risking a hard reset. The players legitimately liked Kellogg and were mad when he left. A mass exodus was always possible.

All of this puts McCall in a challenging spot. He was hired to do exactly what he did at Chattanooga, take a program that already had talent and mold it into a winner. It’s a different task now.

Unless someone else bolts the remaining roster features big men Rashaan Holloway, Malik Hines and Baldwin, and perimeter players Luwane Pipkins, C.J. Anderson, Unique McLean and Flowers. Whether or not Clark comes back becomes more impactful.

McCall has some interesting calls to make with quite a few available scholarships. How good does the program need to be in 2017-18?

Holloway and Pipkins have both looked like stars at times, and Flowers and Baldwin showed glimpses of potential. Add a couple of capable graduate transfers and UMass could be competitive in an Atlantic 10 that’ll likely be down.

Or is it better to pursue late-deciding freshmen and regular transfers, who’ll sit out next year learning the system? That would mean less payoff next year, but more in the future.

Neither is fool proof. Either way recruiting is critical and there are AAU events this weekend.

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