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Head basketball coach Matt McCall striving to add passion back to UMass

  • UMass coach Matt McCall, shown coaching against Nevada last season, is striving to bring passionate players into the program. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 6/5/2019 9:29:25 PM

AMHERST — It was at the end of January when Matt McCall started to really preach about pride in the program.

At the end of his second year at UMass’ helm, McCall kept harping on the fact he didn’t feel like his players had as much pride in wearing the maroon and white as previous generations. At times it looked like the Minutemen were more focused on individual accomplishments, but McCall continued to emphasize that his team needed to have a passion for UMass basketball.

That didn’t change Wednesday, a little less than three months since UMass lost in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament in New York. As McCall works diligently to craft a new image for his program, the not-so-distant history of John Calipari still loomed on his mind.

“You look at the history of the program and you look at the guys when Cal was here in the 90s and what they were able to do,” McCall said. “They all had a passion and a drive to get better and to be here. It didn’t go well Cal’s first year and it grew and it took a couple of recruiting classes to get them to that point. But there was a tremendous amount of pride for this university and those guys wanted to leave their legacy.

“We’ve got the No. 1 recruiting class in the Atlantic 10, and that’s all well and good,” McCall added. “But those guys wanted to be here. The character piece is big. One NCAA Tournament in 21 years, why? Why hasn’t there been more success at UMass? I think it goes back to that want and desire to play for this university and having guys that have that high character that are going to put the team first and get better every single day.”

McCall has filled out all 13 scholarships for the upcoming season, a massive task that required replacing the six players who transferred out of the program after the season and Rashaan Holloway, who graduated. He did so with a crop of seven freshmen, only two of whom signed during the early period last November.

The other five committed and signed in spurts this spring. Woodstock Academy forward Tre Mitchell and guard T.J. Weeks both signed in April. Then guards Sean East and C.J. Jackson committed and joined the program in the middle of May, leading up to Kolton Mitchell, who pledged his commitment a little more than a week ago.

Throughout the entire process, McCall said a desire to play at UMass was atop his list of attributes for potential recruits and a focal point during the entire process over the spring.

“We wanted guys that really wanted to be here,” McCall said. “That’s not a knock on anybody who left, everybody left for different reasons and that’s OK. (We wanted) guys who are completely 100 percent bought into the team, always putting our team first and wanting to be here at UMass and wanting to work and wanting to grow and wanting to get better.”

The class of seven freshmen was not by design, just the result of finding team-oriented players willing to work hard and push each other. McCall said he wasn’t going to sacrifice that passion for UMass in order to fit into a preset plan or balance the scholarship counts. Instead, he searched for the best fits for the Minutemen, wherever they were located and no matter their age.

“Young, old, transfer, non-transfer, that was the prerequisite and we’ve addressed that,” McCall said. “Every guy that we’re bringing into our program right now has a hunger to get better and wants to be here.”

Only three new players have arrived on campus so far, but they have made an immediate impression on McCall. He said he leaves the office on many Friday evenings to the sight of John Buggs doing full-court layups to the point of being drenched in sweat. It adds to a culture of gym rats that McCall said will be vital to the team’s improvement next season.

The full 13-man squad will all be on campus starting June 16, two weeks before the start of UMass’ second summer session. Yet those who are in Amherst already have given McCall a different vibe around the Champions Center than the one that permeated through the building for most of last year.

“I haven’t seen in my two years more guys in the gym as much as these guys have been in the last two or three weeks since these guys have been on campus,” McCall said. “You see a different level of excitement, energy and confidence out of the guys who are coming back.”

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