Colleges

Joe Sullivan | College Basketball

Surprise, surprise: UMass is better than everyone thought

UMass head coach Matt McCall gestures during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Minnesota, Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, in New York. Minnesota won 69-51.(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Mary Altaffer/AP
Matt McCall is in his first season as UMass coach.

A sports fan’s favorite present: “Season Ticket”

This UMass basketball season was expected to be something like the winter of 2015, relentlessly bad with no seeming end.

To everyone’s surprise – except maybe first-year coach Matt McCall – that hasn’t happened. The Minutemen are 5-5 with all the victories coming at the Mullins Center, where they also face an intriguing opponent Saturday when Georgia comes to Amherst.

“To be honest with you,’’ said McCall, “We lost to BYU at the buzzer. We lost to Harvard in overtime. We were in a two-possession game with South Carolina. We didn’t play well at Quinnipiac but we had them beat as well. We could be sitting here and looking at 8-2 or 7-3 easily.’’

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There you go, UMass fans, you have a coach with high expectations. After McCall got the job, six players transferred and then a player he was able to bring in Jaylen Brantley, a graduate transfer from Maryland, was ruled out for the season with a heart ailment. Reasonable expectations would be for a single-digit victory season.

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“These guys are starting to learn,’’ said McCall. “We’ve played inspired ball this year with the exception of one game. That’s the reason for having some success, but obviously we have a long way to go.’’

Luwane Pipkins, a 5-11 sophomore guard from Chicago, has exceeded expectations, leading the team at 18.9 points per game. He’s a living example of a volume scorer; he’s taken 152 shots and the next closest is C.J. Anderson at 77. He’s only shooting 42 percent, but he’s made a number of big baskets in the clutch.

Luwane Pipkins has started all 10 UMass games this season.
J. Anthony Roberts/The Republican via AP
Luwane Pipkins has started all 10 UMass games this season.

“He’s such a prolific scorer,’’ said McCall “He gets unbelievable lift on his jump shot. We know, especially losing Brantley, if we’re going to have to success, he has to score. He’s completely fearless.’’

Pipkins is the only double-figure scorer on the team. Rashaan Holloway, a 6-11, 310-pound center, is next at 9.6. He balances out Pipkins by making 60 percent of his shots, but he only plays 18.2 minutes. He needs to play more and rebound more

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“Foul trouble,’’ said McCall, explaining Holloway’s lack of playing time. “He’s so big I think sometimes he gets picked on. A guy falls over and automatically, it’s a foul. His stamina is getting better. He’s got to find more discipline so we can keep him out there without fouling. We’ve got to keep developing him and he’s got to keep getting better.’’

Defense has been a key. The Minutemen hold opponents to a 41.6 shooting percentage and 30.6 on threes.

Good defense will be needed against Georgia, the interesting opponent UMass faces Saturday. The Bulldogs are 7-1 and a possible tournament team. UMass will be an underdog, but it would be a notable upset if they can pull it off.

“For 11 years I was in the league with them,’’ said McCall who was an assistant coach under Billy Donovan at Florida. “My first victory as a (head) coach at Chattanooga was over Georgia. 92-90, we beat them in overtime.

“I think they have the best frontcourt player in the SEC and maybe the country in Yante Maten.

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He’s gotten better and better every year. Coach [Mark] Fox always seems to have one of those guys who can affect the game in the frontcourt in so many different ways and they don’t beat themselves the way they play.’’

After Georgia, UMass has two winnable home games against Georgia State and Maine. Then Atlantic 10 play starts. The league is wide open. Rhode Island and Saint Bonaventure are the deserving favorites, but the Minutemen, bolstered by their upset win over Providence last week, will have a chance against any else.

Other games I’d like to see this weekend:

Saturday

Butler vs. Purdue at Bankers Life Fieldhouse: This is always a great day in Indianapolis with the four Indiana schools playing a doubleheader. I wouldn’t mind attending one day – two games followed by shrimp and steak at St. Elmo’s. Notre Dame-Indiana is the second game. The first game is interesting in that Butler has to find a way to stop Purdue’s big guys and Purdue can’t let Butler Kelan Martin go off.

Stephen F. Austin at LSU: LSU, under new coach Will Wade, who came from Virginia Commonwealth, is a surprising 6-2. The only losses happened in Maui. Something’s going on in Baton Rouge. After one down season, SFA is tough again. The Lumberjacks are 9-1 with the only loss coming at Mississippi State. I’m expecting a close one.

Virginia Tech at Kentucky: This is a chance for VaTech to do something notable. The Hokies are 9-1 (the one being a weird loss to Saint Louis at MSG) and are averaging 96.2 points, tops in the nation. Buzz “Curley’’ Williams usually emphasizes defense, so something is going on. Meanwhile, the Lexington, Ky. Playaz are a bunch of extremely talented freshmen who have only been able to put together around 10 consecutive minutes of good team play. That’s been enough to go 8-1, but their assist to turnover ratio is about 1-1. Sensing upset here.

Oklahoma State at Florida State: This is my first chance to see undefeated Florida State and I like that’s it’s against an opponent who will provide a challenge.

Northwestern at DePaul: Chicago rivalry. Northwestern has been really disappointing. It looked like it took out its frustration on poor Chicago State the other night, leading 55-8 at halftime on the way to 96-31 victory. DePaul will put up a better fight, but even the home court (a beautiful brand new one) might not be enough to pull off the upset.

Drake vs. Iowa in Des Moines: The Iowa doubleheader, another event I’d like to see in person some day. The game is in Des Moines, but not on Drake’s home court. Still, this is a chance for Drake to pull off an upset over an Iowa team that has not been playing well.

Oklahoma at Wichita State: This is must-see for me, two of my favorite players, Tray Young of Oklahoma and Shaq Morris of Wichita. The Shockers probably have too much for the Sooners, but I bet Young scores a bunch.

Florida vs. Clemson in Sunrise, Fla.: Clemson is a football school, but its basketball team is 8-1 with a nice win at Ohio State. This would be an even nicer victory if they can pull it off. If the inconsistent Gators are playing well, it won’t happen.

Northern Iowa vs. Iowa State in Des Moines: Northern is 8-2 with the two losses to North Carolina and Villanova. A win here makes them state champs.

Middle Tennessee vs. Auburn in Birmingham, Ala.: More must-see for me. Middle Tennessee might be better than its past two NCAA teams with the addition of 6-7 senior transfer Nick King, who’s averaging 24.3 points. He had previously played at Memphis and Alabama. Plus the Raiders still have Sully’s Court favorite Giddy Potts, who hasn’t been on target from behind the arc this season. He’ll come around. The Blue Raiders are 7-1 and Auburn (8-1) won’t be an easy opponent even on a neutral court unless somebody gets taken away in handcuffs because of the FBI investigation.

Sunday

North Carolina at Tennessee: The Vols are one of the surprise teams in the nation with a 7-1 record with the only loss coming against No. 1 Villanova. This will be a similar challenge, but they have the home-court advantage.

UC Santa Barbara at Southern Cal: UCSB is on a seven-game winning streak after only winning six games last season. USC might regret scheduling this game.

Joe Sullivan can be reached at joseph.sullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeSullivan