Matt McCall using trip as teaching tool for young UMass basketball squad

  • UMass head coach Matt McCall h STAFF FILE

Staff Writer
Published: 8/16/2019 8:52:52 PM
Modified: 8/16/2019 8:52:40 PM

AMHERST — There’s been a lot of teaching going on inside the Champions Center this summer.

Matt McCall enters his third year as the UMass coach with a new staff and a roster that’s equally split between returners and freshmen. During a normal summer, there would be a limited amount of practice time for McCall to attempt to get everyone up to speed to the new style of basketball he wants to implement. Yet this summer has been different for McCall thanks to the upcoming trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Minutemen leave on Monday for their international tour, an opportunity every college program can be afforded once every four years. Per NCAA rules, UMass has 10 extra practices it can have this summer to prepare for the tour, and McCall has used them to help give his team a head start. Those additional sessions have rendered the results of the Minutemen’s three games in the Virgin Islands relatively pointless.

“It’s going to be a success no matter what,” McCall said. “The results of the games is not too big of a concern for me, it’s more (about) getting these guys reps. We’ve got three different types of pressure already and coming out of the Virgin Islands, narrowing our focus there to these are the presses for this personnel – because we’re going to press – these are the presses that we need to focus on, maybe this one we need to get better on.”

The trip will also give McCall empirical data for how the freshmen will be able to contribute for the Minutemen this season. Based on the fact only six players returning from last season’s team – if Randall West rejoins after football season, it’ll be seven – most of the seven freshmen will have to play some minutes for UMass. Yet McCall hasn’t been concerned yet about trying to put any type of label on the roles he will assign to each freshman.

All of that will be defined for the six healthy freshmenJohn Buggs III had his knee scoped to clean up a knee injury from high school – as they gain valuable minutes in the Virgin Islands. McCall said he’s going to mix and match lineups and combinations to find which groups of five players work best together and then adjust his plan for the season from what he sees in Saint Thomas.

“We haven’t defined roles, per se, yet,” McCall said. “When we do that as we go here then now there’s more focus to put on that to where you can focus more on getting better and not necessarily the result of it. … Everyone is going to get a chance and an opportunity here to showcase what they can do. We want to be deep, we want to play nine-10 guys. These 10 practices that we’re in the middle of now and this trip will help us define some of that stuff.”

All seven freshmen have impressed McCall with their work ethic and maturity, but there is still a lot more time for the group to develop. McCall said each player has their own strengths and weaknesses that complement each other – specifically Sean East’s vision on offense and Kolton Mitchell’s defensive aptitude.

Yet most of the public’s attention has been with 6-foot-9 Tre Mitchell and his ability to be a gamechanger on the interior. McCall said he’s been trying to push Mitchell to be more selfish with the ball in his hands to make the best play for the team.

“They’re all sponges, they want to learn, they want to grow, they want to get better,” McCall said. “I’ve been on Tre a lot about being more aggressive. Tre is such a high-character kid that he’s constantly trying to find his teammates and be unselfish. When Tre gets that thing on the block, he’s got to go, that’s good for our team.”

Ultimately, the trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands will be an important bonding moment for a team that is trying to change the culture at UMass for the long term. McCall said he wants to come out of the three games with a better sense of what he needs to work on during the fall in order to help the team reach that plateau of sustained success.

“I said to our staff the other day, coming out of this trip, – obviously it’s for our players, it’s for us to come together as a team,” McCall said, “but it’s also for us to say these are things we need to work on, these are the things that worked that we’re doing and these are the things we need to tweak or tinker with.”

Josh Walfish can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at

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