UMass confident as it opens Atlantic 10 Tournament with La Salle

  • UMass coach Matt McCall shouts instructions during his team's loss to VCU, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018 at the Mullins Center. GAZETTE PHOTO / JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass coach Matt McCall shouts instructions during the final minute of his team's loss to URI, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018 at the Mullins Center. GAZETTE STAFF PHOTO / JERREY ROBERTS

  • Luwane Pipkins was named co-most improved player of the year in the Atlantic 10, Tuesday. He also earned a spot on the all-conference second team. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

AMHERST — UMass coach Matt McCall is packing all of his suits, all of his shirts and all of his ties for Washington, D.C.

“I plan on being there for a while,” he said after Monday’s final practice at home. “It starts with me and our staff having a belief.”

While many low-seeded teams are eager to put a tough year behind them and go on spring break, McCall was encouraged that his players don’t want their season to end as they get set for a 6 p.m. game against La Salle, Wednesday in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament at Capital One Arena.

“I think these guys want to continue to play. Obviously we have to play terrifically on Wednesday to win the game, but our guys want to continue the season. Nobody’s ready to go home,” he said. “It would have been easy at times to mail it in. We never did that. I think it starts with me and my energy in practice and them feeling like, ‘He’s invested in us. He’s not mailing it in. He’s coaching every single day.’ I made a promise to myself, no matter how it’s coaching, I’m not sitting down. I’m going to coach every single possession. They have to feel that.

“You have to give these kids a lot of credit for continuing to compete. That was evident Saturday,” he continued in reference to his team’s win over Duquesne. “We played one of our better games if not our best game with this group.”

Sophomore Luwane Pipkins said the Minutemen didn’t want to feel like they missed any opportunity.

“We’re just trying to go out with a bang,” he said. “However the season ends we want to leave it all out there. We’re starting to get our groove back. We just have to do it big for C.J. (Anderson) in his last year and go our strong.”

Still, the Minutemen are a long shot to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament by anyone’s definition. No. 13 seeds don’t win tournaments very often in any league, especially when they have to win five games in five days with a roster that features six scholarship players, a former manager and a loaner quarterback playing regular minutes. But despite the short bench and long odds, the Minutemen have stayed close with some of the league’s top teams all season.

McCall said records, seeds and statistics don’t matter once the game starts. He recounted what Bill Belichick had told Florida when the Patriots coach was invited to speak to the Gators basketball team.

“The team that is going to win is the team that’s going to play the best. Seedings don’t matter,” said McCall, who was an assistant under Billy Donovan at Florida when Belichick visited. “He talked about a horse race. Those horses don’t know what the odds are or what they’re seeded. The horse that runs the fastest is winning the race.”

McCall has been part of conference tournament champions as a head coach at Chattanooga and an assistant coach at Florida. He’ll revive a tradition he used at both spots, showing a video of the team’s grueling summer workouts.

“The night before we play we’ll show them a video of what we were doing this summer, out here on this field,” he said motioning to the lower Boyden fields outside the men’s basketball practice facility. “Flipping tires, carrying chains and pulling sleds and all the work that’s gone into it preparing for this moment.”

UMass and La Salle split their two regular season meetings with each team winning at home. The Explorers were missing leading scorer B.J. Johnson in the first game and point guard Pookie Powell in the second. They’ll have both available Wednesday. The winner will take on No. 5 George Mason, Thursday at 2:30 p.m.

HONORS — Pipkins was named co-most improved player of the year in the Atlantic 10, Tuesday. He also earned a spot on the all-conference second team.

The Chicago native increased his scoring average by nearly 11 points this season, leading the Minutemen and ranking second in the A-10 with 21.1 points per game. The sophomore averaged 23.3 points against A-10 opponents.

Pipkins improved from 3-point range as well, hitting on 41.5 percent of his shots compared to 32 percent as a freshman.

Pipkins became the fourth Minuteman to win the award and first since Ricky Harris in 2008. Pipkins shared the award with LaDarien Griffin of St. Bonaventure.

Pipkins was also named to the U.S. Basketball Writers Association All-District I Team.

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