Refreshed from break, UMass hosts George Mason in return to Atlantic 10 play

  • UMass senior guard Carl Pierre gathers his teammates during its loss to Bryant last week at the Mullins Center. UMass hosts George Mason on Wednesday. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/29/2020 8:17:49 PM

The holiday break arrived a few moments too soon for the UMass men’s basketball team.

Last time out, the Minutemen allowed Bryant to shoot 58.2 percent from the field – 69 percent in the first half – and couldn’t follow through on a late comeback.

“Our approach going into that game was we were on Christmas break. Our guys were looking forward to it,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “We knew how dangerous they were going in. Our numbers defensively have got to drastically improve.”

That was more than a week ago. Some of the Minutemen went home for the holidays. Others spent the time off with the coaches and their families. They reconvened Sunday and began massaging the issues that plagued them through their first four games.

“We put a tremendous amount of focus on defense the last three, four days. We’ve tweaked some things and we’re doing things different defensively now,” McCall said. “We’re making strides, and that’s what we need to do.”

The first practice back from the holiday break is usually lethargic with many players recovering from travel. UMass brought a renewed level of enthusiasm after its time off.

“In most cases the energy level is not what you would call high. Our guys, man on the 26th, were unbelievable. They were bouncing around,” McCall said. “They had great effort and energy. They were rejuvenated.”

The Minutemen (2-2, 1-0 Atlantic 10) are now directing that energy toward conference play. They host George Mason at 6 p.m. (NESN, 105.5 FM) on Wednesday. The Patriots (4-2), who are playing their first Atlantic 10 game, lost 68-65 to Norfolk State on Saturday.

“That was really disappointing,” George Mason coach Dave Paulsen said after the game. “We didn’t have the composure we needed.”

McCall singled out three areas that have differentiated UMass wins from its losses: unselfishness, effort and rebounding. The Minutemen averaged 17.5 assists per game in their wins and 14 in each of the losses. They’ve allowed 13.5 more points per game in their wins than the losses.

Two of those areas will convene on one of George Mason’s strengths: offensive rebounding. The Patriots lead the A-10 with 12.5 offensive rebounds per game and grab 36.7 boards per contest, third in the league. UMass is 10th at 33.8.

“We need to make sure to end possessions with rebounds, play tough,” UMass sophomore T.J. Weeks Jr. said.

They’ll also have to contend with two high-scoring guards. Jordan Miller leads the team with 16.5 points per game, while Javon Greene scores 11.8 ppg.

“(Greene) always seems to have huge, huge games against us,” McCall said.

He’s averaged 21.8 points per game against the Minutemen over the previous two years, including 32 in a home win last year.

AJ Wilson also leads the A-10 in blocked shots at 2.6 per contest.

UMass snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Patriots in the teams’ previous matchup on Feb. 9. The Minutemen will bring the conference’s No. 1 offense (85.5 ppg) and leading scorer (Tre Mitchell, 22.5 ppg) into the matchup.

“It was good for everyone to take a step back. Our players have been through a lot since August. I was happy for our players to be able to go home, the ones that were able to,” McCall said. “We needed the practice time. There were a lot of areas we needed to improve on. We’ve done the over the past couple days. I’ve been pleased with our approach in practice.”

DECK MIGHT NOT BE FULL — UMass might not have its full roster available against the Patriots. Kolton Mitchell was still in COVID protocol on Tuesday, quarantined and awaiting negative tests, McCall said. He emphasized that doesn’t mean Mitchell has or had the virus, just that the team is working its guidelines after he went home to Florida for the holiday. He will be able to play if he produces another negative test Wednesday.

OFF AND RUNNING — Wednesday marks the beginning of UMass’ conference schedule proper. The Minutemen are largely scheduled for two games per week until early March barring any COVID complication. It will be a far cry from the four games UMass played in the first month of the season because of its quarantine and subsequent scheduling challenges.

“You’re really able to get into a rhythm in terms of your preparation,” McCall said. “You know what’s coming.”

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

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