Matt McCall did some serious reflection after going 13-20 and 11-21 in his first two seasons as UMass men’s basketball coach.
Dissatisfied with many aspects of his program, he decided to do something about it. He did a complete makeover of his coaching staff and has restocked his roster with eight new players.
McCall feels the changes were necessary and will lead to future success, but UMass fans hoping for an upward surge need to have patience.
“I think the biggest thing in addressing some of the needs within this program — and I’ve said this a bunch — is the perception of UMass because of what coach [John] Calipari was doing in the ’90s,” said McCall. “The great players who have come through here, there’s been a lot of tradition, but there hasn’t been a lot of tradition lately.
“We’ve been to one [NCAA] tournament in 21 years. There’s been one tournament victory in 24 years. I had to take a step back and evaluate why and how are we going to change that?
“It’s not necessarily what we’re doing on offense or defense or anything, but really injecting this program with an enormous amount of energy and passion. Guys that want to be a part of changing that and take great pride in that.
“It’s going to be a lot of work. It’s going to be really hard, but if we do that, do it together, we can do it. Character trumps ability every single time.
“[I’m] really trying to dissect the culture that we’ve had, the reason that the program is not having the amount of success it probably should have over the last 21 years.”
One returning player McCall can rely on is guard Carl Pierre, the former BC High star who averaged 11.8 ppg last season while hitting 38 percent of his threes.
McCall is hoping for a breakout year from sophomore forward Sy Chatman, who looks the part at 6 feet 8 inches, 220 pounds, but averaged just 3.7 ppg in an inconsistent freshman year.
Otherwise, it will be the new players who could create excitement. New assistant coach Tony Bergeron was a key cog in helping assemble this year’s roster. Four of the newcomers played for him at Woodstock Academy in Connecticut.
Tre Mitchell (6-9), T.J. Weeks (6-4), and Preston Santos (6-6) are Woodstock players who will have an impact this season. Mitchell is the most highly regarded recruit of the McCall era.
“A top 100 guy,’’ said McCall. “Inside, outside frontcourt player. Terrific feel, can really, really pass, and he’s big and physical.
“Some have him picked as the Freshman of the Year in the league. He doesn’t want any of that attention. He wants to be a part of this team, impact this team, help be part of changing this program, but he’s not looking for attention.’’
Dibaji Walker, a 6-9 sophomore forward whose father, Samaki, played 10 years in the NBA, could be a wild card. He’s a transfer from Cleveland State and is waiting for the NCAA to rule on his eligibility for this season.
“He has ability oozing out of him, and he’s a phenomenal kid,’’ said McCall. “His talent level is through the roof, and when we talk about getting guys who have character and talent, he’s got both.
“He’s going to be a tremendous player for us. We didn’t get him until August, so he missed the development piece of the summer, but he’s spectacular.’’
Weeks’s father, Tyrone, was a rugged inside player for UMass (1994–98), but T.J. will be making his impact on the perimeter.
“He’s an unbelievable competitor,’’ said McCall. “He has a high motor, plays with a chip on his shoulder.
“We’re talking about me taking a step back and evaluating our program, the history of our program in wanting guys to be here to be a part of this. Nobody embodies that more than T.J. He grew up a UMass fan. He’s a guy who’s going to have a huge impact right off the rip here.’’
UMass fans should brace themselves and be content to see the improvement of the new players over the course of the season rather than focusing on wins and losses.
“There’s going to be some growing pains, especially with such a young group, but this group has a capacity to work and a capacity to learn,’’ McCall said. “How we look on Nov. 5 is not how we’re going to look on Jan. 1 or Feb. 1 or even March 1.
“We just have to get better every day. That’s a cliché, everybody says it, but when you have such a young team . . . I think the goal is to just get better.’’
One of the big lessons will be the culture McCall is trying to create. Culture can be hard to define, but McCall has his experience as an assistant to Billy Donovan at Florida as a model.
“What I’ve had to do is take a step back and evaluate UMass basketball’s culture, and it just hasn’t been good,’’ he said. “When you’re part of something like the University of Florida, where culture is already established, you’re in there, you’re completely immersed in the job, and you’re adding to it, but you’re not studying it, maybe like I should have been, but you’re immersed in the job.”
One underpublicized asset McCall has is the school’s practice facility attached to the Mullins Center. It’s a sparkling building with separate courts for the men’s and women’s teams, plus many other amenities. It’s a big plus for recruiting.
“I just have to get recruits out here to see it,’’ said McCall.
The quality of recruits is what will ultimately affect McCall’s tenure at UMass. He still has four years left on his contract. He’s changing culture and combining that with quality players. He just hopes athletic director Ryan Bamford doesn’t run out of patience.
“I think he knows exactly what I was walking into, and I think he knows exactly what we’ve gone through, and I have great support from him and I still have four years left on my contract,’’ said McCall. “The pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself.
“I’m sure certain fans are antsy, and I get it, but the support I have from the loyal UMass fans, I think they know, they’re aware that there’s been very little success here over a long period of time.”