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UMass men’s basketball returns key pieces for future success

  • Carl Pierre, right, of UMass, moves the ball against Antwon Portley, of Fordham, Feb. 6 at the Mullins Center. Pierre, who is one of the few upperclassmen for the Minutemen, should lead the team this coming season. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/14/2019 8:36:44 PM
Modified: 6/14/2019 8:36:31 PM

AMHERST — Roughly half of UMass’ roster next season will be freshmen.

If Randall West does indeed return to the basketball team this year, seven of the 14 players on the Minutemen will be new to the program. After six players transferred out of the program and Rashaan Holloway graduated, the focus was on who Matt McCall would sign to replace those losses. The players who decided to stay in Amherst were put on the back burner while the hunt for the other half was ongoing.

Now, more than a week after Kolton Mitchell became the seventh and final freshman to join the team, it’s time to look at exactly who is returning for the Minutemen and how they can help turn the tide in Amherst.

Any list of the six returning scholarship players must begin with rising junior Carl Pierre, who is now the unquestioned leader of this team. It is a label that Pierre grew accustomed to having last season when Luwane Pipkins hurt his hamstring in late January and missed most of the final six weeks of the season.

It isn’t a coincidence that Pierre ironed out his consistency issues during that period. He averaged 16.7 points over UMass’ final 10 games last season, a stretch that included four 20-point games.

Pierre seemed to find something that worked for him on the court at the end of the season that he can build upon entering the upcoming campaign. But his most important task will be being the strong pillar of the program around which McCall can start building for the future.

In addition to Pierre, McCall has the duo of Sy Chatman and Samba Diallo coming back for a second year. The sophomores are critically important to any success the Minutemen have next season because they’ll be asked to do a lot more for the team early and need to be prepared to shoulder such a burden.

McCall said as much last week when he made his first public comments since March.

“In order for our program to take the jump everybody wants it to, those two guys need to get a lot better, too,” McCall said of Chatman and Diallo.

What is more interesting is that Chatman and Diallo will be battling for playing time at power forward after the two played different positions for most of last year. The two would play the position differently with Diallo being more of a defensive anchor who is effective on the glass but a bit lost on offense. Chatman, meanwhile, is athletic and can make an impact on offense, but needs to become stronger on defense.

Diallo had his freshman year cut short by a knee injury, but he worked his way to usurping Jonathan Laurent as a starter in early December and held that spot until he got hurt. He was UMass’ most consistent defender last season and was effective without fouling — a major issue the Minutemen had last season.

Chatman ended the season strongly once he earned more playing time after Diallo’s injury. He was UMass’ second-best player in the Atlantic 10 Tournament loss to George Washington and will benefit from having a year of experience under his belt.

The best player in that season-ending defeat to the Colonials was Keon Clergeot, who scored 25 points in the game. Clergeot is one of the other defensive dynamos UMass returns next season, but he showed off his offensive chops a lot more with Pipkins out of the lineup.

He shouldn’t be relied upon to score nearly as much this season, but his winning 3-pointer against Davidson and his strong offensive end to the season prove he can provide the secondary scoring if needed.

That third defensive dynamo is center Djery Baptiste, who is also the only scholarship player whose eligibility will be exhausted after next season. The graduate transfer from Vanderbilt is the type of shot-altering defender UMass needs on its roster and he is an impressive rebounder as well. Yet, he was clearly not a great post-up option on offense last season and his best offensive trait is his screens to open up space for shooters.

The final scholarship returnee is Khalea Turner-Morris, who might find it harder to get off the bench this season than last year. He played in just 12 games and averaged 6.3 minutes in those appearances.

He made a big impact at Temple when he came in after Holloway was injured in the first minute and matched that a month later at La Salle when he entered due to foul trouble on Baptiste and Holloway. Otherwise, he seemed to be a good teammate on the bench and someone who can be relied upon in short spurts as needed.

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