Cleared by NCAA, Dibaji Walker ready to play large role for UMass

  • Cleveland State freshman Dibaji Walker, right, goes up for a shot against Ohio State guard Duane Washington during an NCAA college basketball game in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. Ohio State won 89-62. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon) Paul Vernon—AP

Staff Writer
Published: 1/3/2020 8:35:50 PM
Modified: 1/3/2020 8:35:25 PM

AMHERST — Sunday morning, Matt McCall received the news he had been waiting to hear for four months.

It was a little more than 30 hours until UMass was set to face Akron in its nonconference finale when the third-year coach learned Dibaji Walker was cleared by the NCAA. The game plan against the Zips didn’t change, but all of a sudden McCall had to make sure Walker, who transferred to UMass this summer from Cleveland State, was ready for his debut.

The first thing on the agenda was making sure Walker was as comfortable as he could be playing with the Minutemen’s starting lineup. There wasn’t much of a reason for Walker to practice with the first unit when his waiver was still being processed, so McCall said that became an emphasis during that Sunday practice.

“He didn’t have a lot of reps with those guys and I’m sitting there at practice in Cleveland and those guys are even saying, ‘we haven’t even played with him,’” McCall said. “He has to get more reps with those guys, so we tried that day to do that.”

When the news was announced Monday, it ended a drawn-out process that left McCall, Walker and his family frustrated and confused. As his former teammates from Cleveland were being cleared to return to action at their new schools in November, Walker still didn’t have an answer from the NCAA.

He admitted that the waiting game took a toll on him and he grew more pessimistic by the day, so he said he was excited when the good news finally arrived last weekend.

“The process was long and I kind of lost myself in the process,” Walker said. “I kind of lost hope in playing, so it caught me by surprise the fact that I did get cleared to play. The hard part was just trying to stay ready mentally and physically.”

Complicating things for Walker was that he was sick earlier this season, which he said left him unprepared to play physically if he would have been cleared at that time. But he worked himself back into game shape and felt ready for his debut against Akron.

It wasn’t just any other game for Walker, however, considering the contest was being played in his home state of Ohio and he had many friends and family in attendance to watch him play. He wanted to claim it felt like a usual game for him, but he couldn’t finish the sentence on that thought.

“I’m can’t say that, it didn’t feel like any other game,” Walker said. “I wouldn’t say I was outside of myself, but I felt more pressure that game than any game. Like, I don’t know how to really explain it.”

Walker said he expected to be eased back into the game, but McCall had different ideas. The coach surprised Walker with how much the sophomore actually was in the game. Walker played 16 minutes and shot 1 of 7 from the floor, nailing a crucial 3-pointer late in the game for his first points with UMass.

McCall said he wanted to make sure Walker got as much game experience as possible against Akron with Atlantic 10 play beginning Sunday at 4 p.m. at Saint Louis. So the coach called a lot of plays for the wing, resulting in a surge of confidence for Walker despite not seeing the ball fall through the net.

“I didn’t know necessarily how much I was going to play, and I actually played more than what I thought I was going to play,” Walker said. “But the fact that immediately I was thrown right into the fire and having plays called for me, in ways, it was a confidence booster because I wasn’t expecting it. But it shows me that my coach believes in me and I have a staff that believes in me.”

The added body came at the right time for the Minutemen (6-7, 0-0 Atlantic 10), who will still be without guards T.J. Weeks and Kolton Mitchell against the Billikens (11-3, 0-1). Walker’s addition also allows McCall to get more creative with his lineup choices with a true stretch player who can allow UMass to go bigger or smaller depending on the situation.

“When he’s out there and he’s at the small forward spot, we’re so much bigger, we look like an Atlantic 10 team,” McCall said. “Obviously, he’s so talented offensively, but it just gives us a different dimension.”

“He’s just so talented offensively, he can get a bucket when you need a bucket,” McCall added. “He can play off the bounce, he’s athletic ... he can really, really shoot, he’s just got that natural feel offensively. We’ve got to keep things pretty simple for him when he’s in the game, not calling a lot of plays.”

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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