Motivated UMass out to prove preseason conference ranking wrong

  • UMass men’s basketball coach Matt McCall watches his team during preseason practice at the Champions Center. The Minutemen were picked eighth in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass men’s basketball sophomore forward Tre Mitchell shoots team during preseason practice at the Champions Center. Mitchell was named to the Atlantic 10 preseason first team. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/11/2020 7:34:23 PM

Being picked eighth in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll didn’t sit well with the UMass men’s basketball team.

“That’s most definitely a chip on our shoulder,” senior guard Carl Pierre said. “I think everybody in our programs believes we can do much better than that.”

The Minutemen closed last season 5-3 and lost two of those games by single digits. They bring back six players, including their three leading scorers. UMass also added a talented, five-member freshman class and two experienced transfers. The Minutemen will begin the season at Mohegan Sun from Nov. 25 through Dec. 2 for the “Bubbleville” tournament. They start A-10 at La Salle on Dec. 9.

“We have a lot to prove, but I think we had that chip before we had that number,” sophomore center Tre Mitchell said.

Mitchell is the reigning A-10 Rookie of the Year and was named to the preseason all-conference first team. He averaged 17.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, shooting 48 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3. The Basketball Hall of Fame included Mitchell on its 2021 Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Watch List along with players from top-10 teams like Duke, Gonzaga and Baylor.

“No matter what is put on me I always view myself as an underdog and I’ve always got something else to prove,” Mitchell said.

He’s one of three starters returning along with sophomore Preston Santos and senior Carl Pierre. Pierre is one of UMass’ most reliable shooters, making 75 3s last year. Santos started 12 games toward the end of the season and can play multiple positions.

The Minutemen will also benefit from a full season of sophomore guard T.J. Weeks. He was limited to 10 games in his debut campaign after requiring surgery for a hernia. At the time, Weeks was shooting 48.5 percent from deep and scoring 14.7 points per game. That would have led the nation if he qualified over a full season.

Of the five freshmen joining the program, four boast three-star ratings from UMass also added sophomore guard Noah Fernandes from Wichita State and grad transfer Mark Gasperini from American.

“This is as deep of a team as I’ve had since I’ve been here,” said fourth-year UMass coach Matt McCall.

That depth will be critical to the Minutemen’s quest to outpace expectations. McCall brought a fast-paced, pressing system when he was hired from Chattanooga. It has taken him time to implement the system and find the right players to execute it.

“We want to press, we’re committed to pressing. You’re going to be able to play nine, 10, 11 guys,” McCall said. “There’s not a lot of drop-off with these guys.”

UMass went 14-17 last year and has gone 38-58 over McCall’s first three seasons. The Minutemen haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2014. They last earned a bye in the first round of the A-10 Tournament in 2016. Despite that history and a modest upward trajectory over the previous two seasons, winning three more games last year than in 2018-19, the Minutemen believe they can achieve something special. What does special mean?

“Something special would be wining the A-10, making it to the tournament,” Pierre said. “We think it’s something that’s doable for our group. The only thing that could stop us is ourselves. Why not set the goal high? Why not us?”

Mitchell took it a step further.

“We’re ready to get the tournament, get a couple wins, get this thing rolling,” he said.

That confidence comes from the bond the group has already formed. Eight of the roster’s 14 players spent time at Woodstock Academy in Connecticut. They also have connections from AAU teams during their prep seasons.

“It’s more of a mindset thing,” Mitchell said. “There would be no point in us putting all this work in If we were going to say we’re going to finish eighth in the league.”

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