Defense needs to catch up to UMass basketball’s offense ahead of showdown with Harvard

  • The UMass men’s basketball team focused on its defensive effort this week in practice after giving up at least 80 points in each of its past four games. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • The UMass basketball team’s defense needs a pick me up to reach the level of its red-hot offense. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Published: 12/3/2021 1:53:45 PM
Modified: 12/3/2021 1:53:12 PM

AMHERST – Offense took a backseat during the UMass men’s basketball team’s week between games. The Minutemen have figured out how to score. It’s stopping opposing teams that needs extra attention ahead of Saturday’s noon tipoff against Harvard.

“We've got to be better defensively. That's the bottom line. Our offensive numbers are through the roof right now,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “You look at it as a coach always and, you know, is it schematically what we're doing now? We have to do what we're doing just at a higher level.”

UMass (5-3) has allowed 79.8 points per game, currently in the bottom 25 in college basketball. Opponents have shot 48.4 percent from the field against the Minutemen and 37.4 percent from 3. Both percentages rank lower than 300th nationally., which measure’s efficiency and adjusts for strength of opponent, ranks UMass’ defense No. 254 out of 358 Division I teams.

“That's the biggest thing is fixing that side of the ball. When you watch us play defense, there's such a lack of aggressiveness, “ McCall said. “We need to increase our tenacity and our effort on defense and try to take teams out of things like they try to do us.”

McCall regularly challenged the Minutemen this week in practice to increase their effort. They’ve given up more than 80 points in each of their last four games and recognized where strides can be made.

“I think it’s a want to. It’s hard, playing defense for 40 minutes is a really tough thing to do,” UMass forward Trent Buttrick said. “You’ve got to give everything you’ve got on both ends of the floor, and that’s when you get a sub. There’s really no time for plays off or possessions off.”

Junior guard Noah Fernandes affirmed that team’s schemes have been sound. He said the Minutemen defend team’s initial actions well. It’s when opponents run further sets or grab offensive rebounds that UMass has faltered.

“We're pretty locked in on the defensive end, you know, like our first effort,” he said. “Then another guy will help another teammate and after that it’s the third or fourth effort where we’re messing up later in the shot clock. We’ve got to do a better job of communicating stuff when it gets late in the shot clock.”

The Minutemen have also struggled finishing the last act of defense: ending an opponent’s possession with a rebound. Opponents are outrebounding UMass by four boards a game. The Minutemen only grab 31.6 rebounds per game, 322nd in the country.

“I think that's coaching. We got to, as a staff, make sure that we're, we're holding everyone to a certain standard defensively,” McCall said. “I think we have capable defenders. When you're a talented offensive player, that means you can move just as well on the other end.”

When UMass trailed Rutgers by 12 with about 7 minutes left Saturday, McCall switched to a zone defense. The Minutemen only allowed nine points the rest of the way and won on a Fernandes buzzer-beater.

“It was effective. You’ve got to rebound out of it and do those type of things, but I like our zone,” McCall said. “It’s been good for us. We’ve got to keep working on it and practice and get better at it so we can go to it when man’s not working for us.”

Despite the defensive issues and need for improvement, the Minutemen are above .500 and have won their past two games thanks to a torrid offense and blistering 3-point output. UMass scores 82.2 points per contest, good for 33rd-best in the nation. They’ve made the third-most 3s in the nation (93) and attempted the second most (234).

“We’re a team that really moves and shares the ball and we're not turning it over. So when you add those two things in there, you can be a lethal offensive team. You know, we've got guys that are shooting it at a high clip from the perimeter. You know, those percentages are through the roof,” McCall said. “It really goes back to our ability to take care of the basketball and our unselfishness.”

The Minutemen average 14.6 assists per game. That’s 117 assists compared to just 83 turnovers for a 1.41 assist-to-turnover ratio that ranks 42nd in the country. Ten UMass players have reached double-digit scoring figures this season. UMass has put at least three players in double figures every game and had six in a win over UMass Lowell last week.

“Our whole team’s super unselfish. You really never know, it’s not on anybody’s mind while we’re in the game. It’s just play the game and we’ll look at the score sheet after,” Fernandes said. “We’re just trying to find open guys and make the right play. Being unselfish with a talented team like we have is the most important thing on offense.”

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