Davidson offers UMass basketball an opportunity and a reminder

  • UMass hosts Davidson at noon Sunday on CBS Sports Network. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/22/2021 7:26:07 PM

Davidson presents an opportunity and a reminder for the UMass men’s basketball team Sunday.

The Wildcats acquitted themselves well against Power 5 opponents in their nonconference schedule, beating Vanderbilt and giving Texas everything it could handle in the Maui Invitational. They’ve won three games in a row entering Sundays noon tipoff in Amherst, which will be broadcast nationally on the CBS Sports Network.

“As a competitor and competitors we’re all looking forward this this opportunity,” UMass senior Carl Pierre said. “We’re focused on coming out and getting better. This could be a big statement win for us.”

The Minutemen (5-3, 4-1 Atlantic 10) are riding their own three-game winning streak. They own second place in the conference standings outright and haven’t forgotten the last time they faced Davidson (9-5, 5-2): a 35-point drubbing in Davidson, North Carolina. By UMass coach Matt McCall’s count, the Wildcats scored 77 points on either 3-pointers or layups in that game. They shot 72 percent from the field and made 11-of-17 3s.

“That’s a complete lack of alertness on our part,” McCall said.

Davidson is going to look very similar. The Wildcats return eight players and play the same style under longtime coach Bob McKillop. They shoot a lot of 3s and execute an efficient half court offense.

“There will be less possessions in the game. They’re going to make you guard for 25 seconds of the shot clock,” McCall said. “That’s even more of a reason to make sure we’re valuing offensive possessions.”

McCall compared it to UMass’ last game at Fordham. Except Davidson is a markedly better offensive team. The Wildcats are the third-best shooting team in the A-10 at 47.3 percent. They make 36.2 percent of their 3s, good for 9.4 per game. That leads the conference. Three players (Kellan Grady, Hyunjung Lee and Collins Carter) have made at least 26 shots from deep,and all hit at least 38.9 percent of their attempts.

“We have to be alert,” McCall said. “Davidson catches you when you come out of your defensive stance and you lack urgency.”

UMass focused on keeping their shooters within arms distance. It took altering their traditional defensive approach. Normally, the Minutemen have a black line that cuts the court in half. When the ball is on one side of the floor, all five of their defenders are expected to have a foot on the line. With the way Davidson shoots and moves the ball and bodies, McCall scrapped the line.

“You really got to take a tremendous amount of pride in guarding your man, whether he has the ball or he’s he’s off the ball,” McCall said. “We’re a help-based defensive team, in the half court especially. That’s difficult when you play against a style like this. Having an unbelievable amount of urgency is key in this game.”

The Minutemen take their preparation to heart. They’ve been mentally ready for their past three games, and once the ball goes up their talent and effort takes over.

“How we approach our games dictates how we perform. When we prepare pretty intensely and everybody’s locked in our talent takes us through because we’re just playing hard,” sophomore guard Noah Fernandes said. “Thought this season we’ve been pretty efficient, especially wen we move the ball two or three times. We’ve just got to stick to our usual game plan and we’ll be fine on the offensive end.”

UMass is second in the A-10 in scoring at 82.8 points per game. The Minutemen achieve that, in part, by playing one of the nation’s quickest tempos. They have the sixth most possessions per game, likely dropped by the slog against the Rams last time out.

The Minutemen will try to speed Davidson up with McCall’s signature press. He doesn’t plan on deviating from the strategy even though UMass will be playing with a shorter bench. Kolton Mitchell suffered a concussion against Fordham and is out. Dibaji Walker is still dealing with a wrist injury, and his status will be determined during Saturday’s practice. Freshmen Cairo McCrory and Dyondre Dominguez also aren’t available. McCall hasn’t been able to comment on their status because of federal rules protecting students at universities. Preston Santos remains away from the team dealing with personal matters at home. That leaves seven players who have received regular minutes this year.

“Our strength coach does a good job with our guys staying in shape and being conditioned. We don’t want to just go out there and get into a half-court game with Davidson,” McCall said. “We feel fully comfortable with our depth going into this game. More of a question would be foul trouble. That could affect what we’re doing defensively.”

Mark Gasperini, a graduate transfer from American that has worked his way into the lineup after early injuries, is in line for more playing time. Davidson regularly plays two traditional big men: 6-foot-10 Luka Brajkovic and 6-9 freshman Sam Mennega. Adding Gasperini to a lineup with Tre Mitchell, the A-10’s leading scorer at 20.5 points per game, allows UMass to combat that bulk directly.

“Brajkovic is huge. He’s got unbelievable length. He alters shots,” McCall said. “It’ll be interesting to see do they play Tre one on one? We’ve got to get a feel for that early.”

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




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