UMass excited to have meaningful basketball in late February

  • UMass coach Matt McCall, right, congratulates Preston Santos during the first half against Saint Louis on Feb. 18 at the Mullins Center. J. ANTHONY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/25/2020 7:45:16 PM

AMHERST — For the first time in Matt McCall’s tenure as UMass coach, the Minutemen are playing late-season basketball games that can impact the course of their postseason.

By the time the calendar has reached late February the last two seasons, UMass had already been solidified into the bottom four of the Atlantic 10 and were just playing for seeding purposes. Yet this year, the Minutemen are just two games out of the fifth seed in the conference tournament with four games left, and are looking to better their position for a potential second-round matchup on March 12 in Brooklyn, New York.

“It feels great to just be improving little by little,” junior Carl Pierre said. “The last two years, we haven’t been playing in meaningful games at this time of the year, and it’s been fun to be able to capture the moment and stay in the moment and be able to play in big-time games like this.”

Just two weeks ago, Wednesday’s 7 p.m. tipoff against VCU wasn’t looking nearly as vital as it is right now. The Rams (17-10, 7-7 A10) have lost four straight and come to the Mullins Center just a game up on UMass (12-15, 6-8) in the conference standings. A win for the Minutemen would catapult them over VCU and they would hold the tiebreaker as well because Wednesday is the only meeting of the season between the squads.

McCall said he is hopeful for a loud, boisterous crowd to cheer on the Minutemen, but also stressed that he didn’t want to make the game bigger than it actually is.

“We’re excited to be playing meaningful basketball in February,” McCall said. “But it’s the next game and that’s why it’s a big game. That’s coach speak, it’s a little cliché, but that’s the truth. This is a big game because it’s a program that’s held the standard in the Atlantic 10 for a number of years. ... VCU has been very consistent, and that’s why it’s a big game. You’ve got an opportunity to play them on your home floor, we only get them once, but it’s the next game.”

MEET THE PRESS — VCU likes to press teams often, which will present a unique challenge for a UMass team that also presses a lot in its own right. Having to practice against a press is a benefit for young ballhandlers, but the Minutemen’s presses are very different to the ones the Rams will throw out there Wednesday.

McCall said it is imperative that UMass protect the ball against VCU’s pressure and make sure it doesn’t give up easy points to the Rams with turnovers in bad spots on the court.

“The one thing I’ll say is because we press, it’s a little bit different but, we work on breaking pressure every day in practice,” McCall said. “(Marcus) Santos-Silva inside, their diamond press, their man-to-man, you don’t know who’s coming to run and jump, you can’t leave each other on islands, you have to be ready to flash back to the ball and help handlers initiate and get into offense.”

MINUTEWOMEN COMPETE FOR HOME COURT — The UMass women are in prime position to host a game in the Atlantic 10 Tournament for the first time in 22 years.

The next challenge for the Minutewomen is taking their excellent efforts at the Mullins Center on the road. UMass (17-10, 7-7 Atlantic 10) has already dropped three road games to teams in the bottom half of the conference, including an ugly 73-56 contest to A10 cellar-dweller George Mason earlier this month.

Coach Tory Verdi has said he’s continued to preach the need to take every game seriously if UMass wants to move up in the conference standings. That starts with taking care of business Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Saint Joseph’s (9-17, 3-11), which is tied with George Mason at the bottom of the league standings.

“We try to communicate that every single A10 game is extremely important and you can’t not show up,” Verdi said. “We go down to Mason and we don’t show up, and you can’t blame it on the travel ... you can’t blame the schedule, you have to play every game the same way, you have to be consistent. We’ve preached that, we’ve talked about our consistency. If we want to move to the upper quadrant of the A10, you’ve got to learn how to be consistent and you have to play consistency each and every single day.”

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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