UMass basketball melding new regiment of transfers with established core

  • Noah Fernandes, left, has established himself as a leading voice in the UMass men’s basketball locker room. “His voice carries a lot of weight,” UMass coach MattMcCall said. “When he talks, guys listen.” SAINT LOUIS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/19/2021 8:36:06 PM

AMHERST — A new regiment of Minutemen has arrived once again.

Six new players have joined the UMass men’s basketball program ahead of the 2021-22 season largely through the transfer portal. Trent Buttrick came from Penn State, Greg Jones transferred from Division II Southern Connecticut State, C. J. Kelly arrived from Albany, Rich Kelly (no relation) left Boston College for Amherst, Michael Steadman moved on from Montana and John Kelly (Rich’s younger brother) played at Fairfield last season.

“Say what you will about the transfer portal, it’s been good to us,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “There’s a level of maturity. I think each one of those guys had their own journey to get here. Each one of them have had experiences to get here that can really help our team as a whole.”

The Minutemen needed to reload after four players departed following last season. Center Mark Gasperini opted not to return for a fifth season of eligibility following graduation, while Carl Pierre (Rice), Tre Mitchell (Texas) and Ronnie DeGray III (Missouri) all transferred. That’s UMass’ top two scorers from last season and two leading rebounders.

“With all the guys coming back and the guys we have coming in, there’s a lot of character,” McCall said. “Everybody wants to win. When you go out and attack the transfer portal and bring in transfers, there’s a concern that some of these guys are on their last stop and they have to get their numbers. They all want to experience the NCAA Tournament, and they want to win. Some guys want to transfer to a place and put up his numbers so he can become a pro. And that’s not the case with our guys.”

UMass, which finished 8-7 last season and reached the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals, isn’t undergoing a complete overhaul. Junior point guard Noah Fernandes provided a steady if at times underappreciated presence at the point and has taken over a leadership position.

“His voice carries a lot of weight,” McCall said. “When he talks, guys listen.”

Redshirt sophomore TJ Weeks, who still has four years of eligibility because of last season’s blanket COVID waiver, Dibaji Walker and Kolton Mitchell have all played multiple seasons under McCall. Preston Santos is rejoining the roster after opting out of last season to focus on his mental health.

Sophomores Javohn Garcia, Cairo McCrory and Dyondre Dominguez played heavier minutes than expected last season between injuries and COVID-related absences and will fill even larger roles this season.

“I’m hoping Javohn can take a big jump here and show signs of what he’s capable of,” McCall said. “Dyondre Dominguez, I’m very pleased with his development ever since he’s been back on campus.”

The team used its time in the summer and early in fall practice to get to know one another as much as learn pick-and-roll coverages or offensive sets.

“It’s building relationships with guys. Half the team is returners and half are grad transfers who have been through the rigors of college for four years. We have Jekyll and Hyde almost,” Rich Kelly said. “We had two sides and we had to mesh the team together.”

That’s been McCall’s challenge most of his five years in Amherst. The Minutemen have dealt with a regularly churning roster of mostly young players that haven’t stayed more than a few years. Now the team has no true freshmen. Two players are grad transfers, two are seniors and another seven are juniors. That’s nearly three-fourths of the roster with two seasons of college basketball under their belt.

“You tell guys one time, ‘hey we’re guarding a pick-and-roll this way,’ and they get it. You’re not having to explain over and over again,” McCall said. “All these guys have had a lot of experience. It’s refreshing as a coach to tell guys to do things one time, and they get it done.”

McCall hopes that experience mixed with talent will give the team flexibility with starting lineups, substitutions and play styles. It will be tested early. UMass opens the season Nov. 9 against UMBC and will play eight games in the season’s first 16 days.

“We’re going to have some flexibility. You need those bodies,” McCall said. “It’s a lot of games in a short period. We’re going to need to utilize our depth.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.
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