Exhibition will provide crucial playing time for young UMass roster

  • UMass and head coach Matt McCall will play Western New England in an open scrimmage, Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/28/2019 7:26:26 PM

AMHERST — It’s been a long seven and a half months since the public last had the chance to watch UMass basketball.

In that span, third-year coach Matt McCall retooled his entire coaching staff, the Minutemen’s roster and how the team will play the game. The team that will take the floor at the Mullins Center at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Western New England is a vastly different squad than the one that left the floor at the Barclays Center in mid-March.

The work has been done behind closed doors through practice and summer workouts, but there have been several chances for UMass to test itself against other opponents. UMass had its trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands in August and a not-so-secret scrimmage against Hofstra on Oct. 20, but none of those contests were able to be seen by UMass fans. The games in the Virgin Islands were not broadcasted back to Amherst and the scrimmage against Hofstra was played in front of just coaches.

But all of those experiences are vital to helping a team with seven freshmen adjust to the rigors of college basketball. McCall said getting the chance to scrimmage against a veteran team like the Pride was a good litmus test for his team.

“Playing against a really, really good team, too, is big, it’s important,” McCall said. “Playing against a team that’s a little bit older, too, is important. It’s important just being able to get in here and play against another opponent in here, it’s so valuable. It was good for us, we got a lot out of it from a film standpoint and I was really, really pleased.”

For the freshmen, any time they have to play against a different opponent in a game that doesn’t count helps season them for when they do start to count next week. Freshman center Tre Mitchell said he learned a lot of lessons from playing against the older teams in the Virgin Islands about how to adjust his game to the college level.

But he also said those games helped give him insight into his own team and how he can find the right response to whatever situation the Minutemen find themselves in in that moment.

“It gives me a pretty good idea of what I need to do at certain points of the game when guys are feeling a certain way – if our energy is low or something like that,” Mitchell said. “It also gives you a good feel of what the guys around you are capable of doing.”

McCall said the entire purpose of the Virgin Islands trip was to help build team chemistry among a group that includes nine newcomers and five returning players. In addition to the seven freshmen, UMass added Cleveland State transfer Dibaji Walker, who is still awaiting a verdict on his waiver for immediate eligibility, and former team manager turned walk-on Davonte Higginbottom.

With so many new pieces, it’s hard to build the on-court trust and knowledge required in practice when there isn’t as much competition as instruction. It’s important for the freshmen, too, to understand the tendencies and strengths of their teammates, and junior Carl Pierre said the exhibitions allow the younger guys to learn those traits in a reduced-stress environment.

“It gives those guys a chance to get a feel for playing at this level,” Pierre said. “Just playing with one another, chemistry isn’t something that happens overnight, so it’s kind of a process and being able to play as many games as we’ve played early on is a big help.”

Regardless of the results of the games, any time UMass is able to gather some tape on itself, it’s going to be a valuable learning experience for the coaches and players. The Minutemen are far from perfect right now and there are still some concepts on both ends of the floor that could use a tune-up before the opener. But with each game, the players are seeing improvements, however incremental it is, and continuing to grow together.

“It helps a lot because we learn a lot (from the games),” sophomore forward Samba Diallo said. “We watched film (of the scrimmage) and we see all the things that we’ve been working on. The offense, the defense, our sets, the press that we’ll be playing, we’re playing them against a team to see how they work. Some of them we’re still learning, but we’re seeing progress.”

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