Fast-paced UMass ready for La Salle’s slow-down style

  • UMass head coach Matt McCall works the sidelines during the season opener against Northeastern, Friday at the Mullins Center. UMass visits La Salle for its Atlantic 10 opener on Wednesday. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/15/2020 6:45:08 PM

What’s the most efficient road to victory?

The UMass men’s basketball team prefers the highway. The Minutemen press, run and try to outscore their opponent.

La Salle, conversely, takes the winding back roads. The Explorers want a physical, defensive struggle where they can impose their will.

Whoever puts themselves in the driver’s seat first will determine who picks up the victory in Wednesday’s Atlantic 10 opener. Originally scheduled for last week, UMass (1-1) will face La Salle at noon Wednesday in Tom Gola Arena in Philadelphia.

“They want a rock fight, chippy, they’ll talk smack to us,” UMass freshman Ronnie DeGray III said. “As long as we run our sets, stop their main scorers and be disciplined we’ve got a chance.”

UMass is fresh off its first two games of the season. The Minutemen split a home-and-home series with Northeastern, winning at the Mullins Center on Friday before falling in Boston on Sunday.

“When you play on the road you’ve got to get off the bus with a certain level of focus and have that focus and be ready to go,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “You’ve got to have more of an edge and hopefully that was a good learning experience for our guys.”

While the Minutemen are still figuring out their personnel and rotations after a positive COVID-19 test and subsequent quarantine, La Salle has played five times since Nov. 26. The Explorers lost their first three contests against St. John’s, Saint Peter’s and Army before bouncing back with victories over Lincoln University – a Division II school – and Drexel. They’ve held their last four opponents to 63 points or fewer. McCall wants the Minutemen above 70.

“We want to press, we want to get the game going up and down the floor. We are committed to the press,” he said. “We’ve got to play more guys and wear teams down. Can we make fatigue a factor?”

It should be a familiar formula. UMass has won three out of its past four games against La Salle and broken 70 in the past two. The Minutemen scored 69 in the third victory and were held to 51 in their last visit to Tom Gola Arena, a loss.

“We can’t be shell-shocked by how physical the game is,” McCall said.

Sophomore guard Jack Clark leads La Salle with 9.4 points per game. Six players average at least seven points per game and nine score at least five. The Explorers like to switch on defense and slip pick and rolls on offense. Rather than waiting for solid contact, the screener will leak early toward the basket to better receive a pass or create a lane for the ballhandler.

“They’ve got big, strong guards. They’ll try to post their guards,” McCall said. “They’ve got a lot of guards they’ll throw at you, not one dynamic guard. They’re going to make it hard to run offense.”

UMass hasn’t struggled finding players to score. The Minutemen have five players averaging at least 10 points across two games, led by Tre Mitchell and Javohn Garcia, both at 20.5 per game. McCall partially attributed that to so many players playing more minutes than he’d like over a full season.

“With the firepower we have on this team, that needs to be a huge focus, playing the game unselfishly, moving and sharing the basketball,” McCall said.

EARLY STARTS — The noon tipoff time is an hour earlier than initially scheduled so that the team can avoid the impending snowstorm. UMass left for La Salle Tuesday afternoon and stayed just outside Philadelphia. The team will eat an early meal at 8 a.m. then be on the bus by 9 a.m. They’ll receive rapid COVID testing on the bus and will only exit it if they return negative.

McCall expects the game to end around 2 p.m.

“Then we’ll be on the bus headed home to outrun the snowstorm,” McCall said.

Every game UMass has played this season has tipped in the early afternoon. The season opener started at 1:30 p.m., while Sunday’s back end started at noon.

UMass announced a third nonconference game for Monday: the Minutemen will host Bryant at a time officially to be determined. McCall said it “may be a 2 o’clock game.”

GARCIA EARNS WEEKLY HONOR — Garcia, a freshman guard, earned his first career conference award when he was named the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week on Monday. He scored 23 points in his debut Friday and followed that with 18 on Sunday. Garcia’s made 4 of 5 from 3-point range while shooting 62.5 percent from the floor 15 of 24).

It’s the 10th A-10 Rookie of the Week award captured by a Minuteman over the past two seasons. Mitchell was named the conference’s rookie of the year last year.

CONFERENCE FINANCIAL AID — The A-10 president’s council approved a $100,000 distribution to each member school to cover the cost of implementing COVID-19 protocols. It’s meant to offset the costs of testing, protected travel and other unbudgeted expenses.

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

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