UMass more connected in return to Barclays Center for Atlantic 10 Tournament

  • UMass players Sean East II, left, and Carl Pierre celebrate after a three-point shot by Pierre in the first half against Yale, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tre Mitchell, right, of UMass, shoots against Paul Atkinson, of Yale, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/11/2020 8:00:50 PM
Modified: 3/11/2020 8:00:39 PM

AMHERST — Last year, UMass arrived at the Barclays Center, simply hoping to go on a five-day run and win the Atlantic 10 Tournament. This season, the Minutemen arrive in New York fully expecting to win four games in four days and punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

The demeanor and culture within the program have done a complete 180-degree turn in Matt McCall’s third season in charge, in large part due to the freshman class UMass signed in the offseason. The fun-loving group showed a lot of grit and determination by winning five of its final eight games to finish the season as the No. 8 seed in the conference tournament. The reward was a bye into Thursday afternoon’s second round where the Minutemen (14-17) will face ninth-seeded VCU (18-13) at noon.

Through it all, the bonds formed between the young nucleus became more apparent as they danced pregame to the arena music or interrupted media sessions with funny faces in order to make the other player break during his interview.

“These guys are all connected,” recently retired forward Randall West said. “Especially the young guys, they’re all friends, they all hang out, you’ve seen the dancing before the games and you’ve seen the dancing in the weight room. This team just likes to have fun and we keep it real light, but when it’s time to work, they get to work.”

When the Minutemen started the season 5-0, there was a breath of fresh air around the Champions Center and Mullins Center when the team was practicing and playing. The mood was lighter than it had ever been last season and the players were having fun playing the sport they loved. That free spirit didn’t go away when the losses starting piling up at the end of November into December and January, but the defeats certainly took a toll.

It’s no surprise that as the team re-focused its energy at the end of January after a tough loss to George Washington, that the wins and fun returned quickly.

“When you lose and you do that, it looks like it’s taking away from the focus,” senior walk-on Davonte Higginbottom said. “But when you win and you do that, (it looks like we’re having fun). We just need to keep doing it all the time, whether win or lose, it’s a big part of this team and therefore the bond that we built.”

At the center of that young core is freshman center Tre Mitchell, who became the program’s first A10 Rookie of the Year since 2004 and the first UMass freshman named to an all-conference team since Marcus Camby. The Pittsburgh native took over the A10 in the final five weeks of the season, easily winning the league’s rookie of the week honor all five times and threatening to be player of the week on a few occasions.

In those final weeks, Mitchell averaged 22.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game with four double-doubles. He has brought a new dynamic to the A10 as a big man, something those well connected in the conference cannot remember seeing previously in the league.

“Not with the combination of agility, strength and skill set,” Rhode Island coach David Cox said Saturday. “I’ve seen really good athletes before, really good dunkers, really good post players, maybe some big men who can stretch the floor a little bit, (but) he can do it all.”

No one around the Atlantic 10 knows McCall as well as Dayton coach Anthony Grant, who worked with the UMass coach when they were both at Florida. He said after the Flyers escaped with a 71-63 win on Feb. 15 in Amherst that the Minutemen were starting to showcase McCall’s personality more and that he knows how hard McCall was working behind the scenes to make sure UMass would return to its former glory.

“I know Matt’s a heck of a coach, he puts his heart and soul into it,” Grant said. “He has a nice nucleus of young guys to go along with some veterans. He’s building and Matt’s a tireless worker, he’s going to give every ounce of what he has to make sure that he’s successful. His guys play hard for him, they compete for him, and as a coach, you want to continue to build and continue to lay the foundation in terms of the culture you want to create, and he’s doing a really good job at that.”

Part of McCall’s culture building was finding players who wanted to play at UMass, something that wasn’t always the case in previous seasons. In his role as student-manager, Higginbottom said he heard a lot of conversations with past players discussing their future transfer plans in the middle of the season, but that has not been the case this season.

He said that commitment to the program and the brotherhood among the players has made this year far different for UMass.

“The fact that guys really want to be here,” Higginbottom said. “You hear during the middle of the season the last couple of years of guys there’s rumblings of once the season’s over, I’m gone. I haven’t heard anything like that right now. Everybody just wants to be here, so that’s the biggest part.”

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