Walfish: Woodstock Academy pipeline should not be a concern

  • UMass redshirt junior guard Keon Clergeot, right, looks for an opening under Sincere Carry of Duquesne in the first half of the Minutemen’s 73-64 win over the Dukes at the Mullins Center in Amherst on Jan. 25. Clergeot announced his intention to transfer on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts freshmen Preston Santos, center, and Kolton Mitchell, right, had their first career starts on Saturday as the Minutemen defeated Duquesne, 73-64, at the Mullins Center in Amherst on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. At left is assistant coach Tony Bergeron. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/19/2020 6:56:21 PM
Modified: 3/19/2020 6:56:10 PM

The first shoe dropped on Tuesday. That was the day freshman guard C.J. Jackson officially put his name in the NCAA transfer portal after never cracking the UMass rotation this season.

On Wednesday, it was Keon Clergeot who decided to leave the Minutemen after seeing the writing on the wall. Those were the two most likely candidates for transfer as coach Matt McCall continues to overhaul the UMass roster.

In their place will likely come two players very familiar to the rest of the Minutemen. Woodstock Academy forward Dyondre Dominguez verbally committed last month to the Minutemen. Then mere hours after Clergeot’s announcement, Wichita State transfer guard Noah Fernandes, himself a former Centaurs star, said he was coming to UMass.

Those two additions as well as November signee Cairo McCrory brings the Minutemen up to seven former Woodstock Academy players among the 13 scholarship players. This current staff has recruited 10 players to UMass – Preston Santos and John Buggs signed under McCall’s old staff – and six of those players had some connection to Woodstock Academy.

It is quite the unorthodox situation for one high school – prep school or otherwise – to comprise so much of a college roster. Of course, it all makes sense because UMass assistant coach Tony Bergeron has a plethora of connections at the school after coaching there for two seasons prior to joining McCall’s staff in Amherst.

Whatever skepticism I had about UMass focusing its recruiting on one prep school before the season has been erased by the results on the court. In the short term, playing to Bergeron’s connections made a lot of sense for UMass. It created the right culture to breed success and brought in some extremely talented players. Woodstock has a national recruiting base in a way public schools just cannot match, meaning these players are among the more talented players in the country.

But perhaps more important this season was the familiarity the players and coaches had with one another. Those bonds helped the Minutemen overcome a rough December and early January to finish the season strong. It was Bergeron knowing exactly what buttons he could push that took the team to the next level on the court. That doesn’t come from a typical first-year assistant with freshmen players.

As so many people pointed out when I put out a Twitter survey Wednesday night, the results speak for themselves. It’s hard to complain with a strategy that has so clearly worked for the Minutemen thus far. And if this next crop of players can perform as well as this year’s freshmen class then UMass is well on its way to contending for the Atlantic 10 title next season.

The question becomes how will UMass now broaden its focus to the other talented prep schools around New England and the rest of the country. It is clear that prep schools are the main focus of this staff considering every player thus far recruited to UMass played at a prep school. But it is a risk to keep going to the same specific well at Woodstock and keeping the success going in Amherst.

This is where the great unknown lies for the Minutemen in the future. In the next two or three years, as Bergeron has less of a connection with the players themselves from his time at Woodstock, will UMass be able to attract the same level of talent? The answer is likely yes given Bergeron and McCall’s recruiting history and how strong their connections are around this area. Also, who doesn’t like playing for a winner, which UMass will need to be if McCall is recruiting the 2022 and 2023 classes.

But there’s no reason to think about two or three years in the future when you look at next year’s roster. Carl Pierre will be the only senior, Samba Diallo and Dibaji Walker will both be juniors and the rest of the squad will either be freshmen or sophomores. That’s a giant youthful base that the Minutemen can rely upon in 2020-21 and in 2021-22, and it’s too early to talk about a 2023 signing class.

So yeah, the Woodstock Academy pipeline is very unorthodox in the college basketball world. And yes, it’s easy to be concerned about taking an unconventional route, but if it leads to cutting down the nets in New York next March, does it matter the path UMass took?

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