Matt McCall ready for challenge of seven UMass basketball freshmen

  • UMass head coach Matt McCall is ready for the challenge of seven freshmen on his basketball team. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/7/2019 5:47:29 PM
Modified: 6/7/2019 5:47:17 PM

AMHERST — The roster is set, the schedule is mostly completed and as Matt McCall puts it, it’s time to get to work.

The third-year UMass coach is embarking on a completely new challenge as he tries to steer the Minutemen back to consistent postseason contention. He’s turned to a group of seven freshmen to complement the six returning scholarship players and Randall West — who McCall said he wants to join the team after football season.

That means many of the young players McCall recruited to fill the roster will need to contribute important minutes for the Minutemen next season. Yet these freshmen are a unique bunch in that all of them attended a prep school last season and several of them took a postgraduate year after high school to work on their games.

“I look at the seven freshmen that we brought in and a lot of these guys played for terrific coaches,” McCall said. “These guys have been coached, they’ve been pushed, they’ve been taught. Especially when you’re at a prep school, it’s structured different almost like being in college.”

That time at prep school was perhaps as beneficial to incoming center Tre Mitchell as anyone else in this seven-player class. McCall said Mitchell transformed his body so much in two seasons at Woodstock Academy that the coach thinks he can be an instant impact player for the Minutemen. He said Mitchell has the potential to be the Atlantic 10’s Rookie of the Year if he stays healthy, but also didn’t want to put too much pressure on him.

What makes Mitchell a game-changer in McCall’s mind is his distribution skills from the post, something the Minutemen lacked last season. He said Mitchell’s skill set will allow UMass to open up its offense more and be more efficient in executing some of its basic packages and help space the floor more.

“One of the things that really attracted to me to Tre as a player is his ability to pass,” McCall said. “When you have frontcourt players who can pass, your ability as an offense goes through the roof. How we want to pass, where we lift our bigs a lot of times and run the spread pick-and-roll motion, the four and five men being able to make high-low passes is critical.”

This summer was already set to be a critical juncture for the future of the program, but the addition of seven young players only magnified that. McCall was already planning to be more focused on player development this year, and that ethos was a factor in his hiring process for filling out his staff.

He said he remembers having individual skill sessions three or four times per week while an assistant at Florida, cramming those drills between summer classes for players. He wants to bring that same schedule to UMass within the more generous time limits the NCAA now allows for instruction during the offseason.

McCall said that time with assistants and staff working on their game on the court is just as vital to next year’s success as the weightlifting programs the Minutemen are going through with strength coach Coty Greene.

“These guys, the time in the gym is equally as important as the time in the weight room this summer,” McCall said. “We’re going to go four days a week, we’re going to be in there working four days a week — individual instruction, shots.”

The pressure isn’t just on the freshmen, though, to make strides this summer. McCall said there’s expectations for rising sophomores Sy Chatman and Samba Diallo to progress in the offseason and assert themselves more as leaders. The pair both showed glimpses of promise last season; Diallo on the defensive end before a knee injury ended his season and Chatman with his athleticism.

McCall said both of them have committed already to taking that next step and showed signs of maturation after their first year of college basketball.

“Not just the freshmen, this is a big summer for Samba, it’s a huge summer for Sy,” McCall said. “In order for our program to take the jump everybody wants it to, those two guys need to get a lot better, too. I’ve seen drastic improvements in both of them just with their confidence coming back in the summer.”

Fortunately for McCall, he’s going to have some extra time this summer to work with his radically reformed team. The Minutemen are scheduled to take a foreign trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands in August, allowing them 10 extra practices prior to the trip in addition to the games the team will play on the tour.

It will be the first time McCall can mix and match lineups against an opponent and get a sense for what his team needs to work on prior to the season tipping off in early November.

“August is going to be a huge month for us,” McCall said. “Being able to practice for 10 days, being able to play three games — maybe a fourth, we’re trying to get another one when we’re down in the Virgin Islands — it’s going to be big and give us an opportunity (to learn about our team).”

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