UMass basketball has bright future if pieces stay in place

  • Matt McCall and the UMass men's basketball team’s season ended in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals Friday against Saint Louis, but the future is bright for the Minutemen because of youth and talent. BRIAN MCWALTERS/ATLANTIC 10 CONFERENCE

  • Noah Fernandes and Tre Mitchell suffered injuries late in the season, but the sophomores will be key parts of the UMass men's basketball team’s core next year. The Minutemen ended this year in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals Friday against Saint Louis. BRIAN MCWALTERS/ATLANTIC 10 CONFERENCE—

Staff Writer
Published: 3/7/2021 5:39:15 PM

UMass’ 2020-21 men’s basketball season could have ended many times over before Friday’s loss to Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals

It was derailed three times by COVID-19 pauses and once by the capitol insurrection in Washington. The Minutemen never played more than four games in a row without a pause or postponement.

“There’s been so much thrown at our players,” UMass coach Matt McCall said.

Despite that, UMass ended the year with its best winning percentage since 2013-14, the last time it reached the NCAA tournament. The Minutemen earned their highest A-10 tournament seed since 2008. They won a conference tournament game for the first time since 2018, reaching the A-10 quarters for the first time in five years.

None of those games included fans until the last two at the conference tournament, when UMass had limited tickets to distribute to family and friends. Injuries regularly shuffled the lineup, which was already in flux after adding six new players.

“So many things changed this year. There’s a lot of mental toughness required to get through this season. I’m proud of the way we responded,” sophomore center Tre Mitchell said. “It was keeping that mindset the whole year that you have to adapt to what happens because people don’t like UMass to begin with. It’s everybody against us. That’s how I feel.”

The freshmen and newcomers contributed early. Freshman guard Javohn Garcia and forward Ronnie DeGray III played in every game and were each named A-10 Rookie of the Week once. Garcia averaged 10.4 points per game and led the team in steals. DeGray scored 8.8 points per game and grabbed 4.6 rebounds per contest, starting 14 games.

Cairo McCrory and Dyondre Dominguez also established themselves as regular rotation pieces and amassed three double-digit games between them while providing energy, length and athleticism.

“The resiliency of the whole group, our freshman class was terrific,” McCall said. “Our freshman class is the best in the Atlantic 10, that’s how I feel about them.”

The two transfers, Noah Fernandes from Wichita State and Mark Gasperini from American, provided their own brand of leadership. Gasperini was a steadying, veteran presence in the locker room shepherding a young group through an unfamiliar situation. He started two games after Mitchell injured his shoulder against Davidson and proved a capable anchor at the center spot.

Fernandes became UMass’ engine. The point guard led the team in assists and proved its most reliable volume shooter from the outside. He spearheaded McCall’s signature press and provided the coaching staff an experienced set of eyes on the court.

“We’ve got a lot of talent on this team. We’ve got a lot of dudes that can go every night,” Mitchell said. “Building off of this is that experience. As they get more experience under their belt, we’re going to get better and better.”

They should get that opportunity. Only Gasperini and captain Carl Pierre are departing, leaving most of the roster intact. Both seniors could return next year with a COVID-19 eligibility exemption, but that looks unlikely.

McCall bemoaned the team’s inability to give the two players a senior night for the last stretch of the season since UMass couldn’t host home games until March 1. Instead, the team hosted a virtual senior night on Twitter, allowing the players and coaches to express what the senior leaders meant to them.

Gasperini returned to his home state after playing at American and will likely pursue a career in finance with his accounting degree. He’ll study to become a CPA over the summer.

“He gave everything he had this year,” McCall said.

Pierre will leave second on the program’s all-time 3-pointers list with 286 (Monty Mack is No. 1 with 331). He started 99 consecutive games and is a top-20 scorer in UMass history. The Boston native is the only member of his recruiting class that stayed all four years in Amherst.

“Embodies everything UMass basketball is about. Never late. Walking away from here with two degrees. Ultimate culture guy,” McCall said. “I’m appreciative of his loyalty to not only our program, but just myself personally.”

UMass has shown over the past three years that just because players can return to a program, it doesn’t mean they necessarily will. Six departed after Pierre and McCall’s first year, 10 the next and nine last season. 

McCall changed his recruiting approach after all of that turnover, shifting his focus away from transfers and quick fixes to building with players committed to both the “U” and the “Mass” parts of the equation.

But the new transfer rule that allows one change of schools without sitting out a year muddies most futures.

“I told guys we’ll be back and we’ve got to start working toward next year. In this time of year, you evaluate,” McCall said. “The transfer portal is crazy. There’s a million guys in that thing every year. You’ve got to have some honest and open conversations, and it’s about getting back to work.”

The potential of next year’s team starts with Mitchell. The reigning A-10 Rookie of the Year and likely First-Team All-Conference pick this year could weigh testing professional waters or other opportunities. He didn’t commit to any specific plan after the loss to Saint Louis.

“There’s some discussions to be had for next steps to me or what comes next in my career. I’m going to take advantage of this offseason,” he said. “I’ve got  to get bigger, faster, better. There’s still a lot of areas I’ve got to improve in my game. I’m going to continue to do that. I believe everything will fall into place.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.


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