It has been a difficult time for the UMass men’s basketball team. After a 5-0 start, the Minutemen have lost six straight, and the last two were especially painful, an 89-55 loss at Harvard, and an overtime loss at home to Yale.
Despite that, coach Matt McCall wants everyone to know he’s OK. “I might be the most happy 5-6 coach in the country,’’ he said.
That’s because he still feels his young team, whose best players are freshmen, is talented and improving.
“Our guys want it,’’ he said. “They want to learn, they want to be coached. They have to learn how to win, they’re so young. Looking at our schedule, every game we won we were supposed to win . . . except Northeastern. Every other game we’ve had, the other teams have been favored on paper, and I’d like to have been able to sprinkle a couple more of those games among our first five so we can learn how to respond, learn how to lose a game and what we have to do.’’
The freshman talent has carried the team in good times, but their inexperience also has been part of why the Minutemen are on a losing streak. UMass held second-half leads against St. John’s, South Carolina, and Yale.
Against Yale, there were sections of the game where a fan could see what’s possible.
“The energy and effort that we played with for the last four minutes of the first half [against Yale] was through the roof, and we have to be able to sustain that for 40 minutes,’’ said McCall.
So far, that hasn’t happened. The good times have been punctuated by the play of 6-foot-9-inch freshman Tre Mitchell, who has outstanding hands and footwork in the low post; and freshman guard Sean East, who had nine assists vs. Yale.
Missing the Yale game was the team’s leading scorer, freshman T.J. Weeks, who has an abdominal ailment that isn’t the result of a basketball injury. It’s uncertain when he will return.
Meanwhile, McCall is trying to find the right mix of talented freshmen and experienced upperclassmen.
“I’ve tinkered, trying to find the right mix,’’ he said. “I feel like I kind of found it against Yale. The big thing is the guys who are going to play with the most effort need to be the guys who are going to play.’’
That group would include Carl Pierre, Keon Clergeot, Samba Diallo, and Djery Baptiste.
It’s gradually coming together.
“As long as we approach every practice the way we approached the two practices leading up to Yale, the results will come,’’ McCall said. “I haven’t felt like that since I’ve been here at UMass.’’
The Minutemen have two more nonconference games left, a winnable home game against Maine and a dangerous trip to Akron. Then, it’s on to Atlantic-10 play, and the league has improved markedly. Most league games are going to be difficult matchups, but McCall wants everyone to know that includes UMass.
“This is not a day when UMass is going to be any easy out in the conference,’’ he said. “We’re going to win some games.’’
Handle with care
Boston University coach Joe Jones won’t say it, but he has a fragile group. The Terriers had leads of 8 or more points in three consecutive losses leading into Saturday’s game vs. Dartmouth. They found themselves in the same situation vs. Dartmouth, holding an 11-point lead with 1:32 remaining. Dartmouth managed the clock well, BU missed free throws, and the lead slowly shrank. The Terriers were able to hold on to win, 78-76, but it was shaky.
Jones, however, remains amazingly positive.
“Not one second did I think we were losing the game,’’ he said. “When I’m coaching, I’m never thinking we’re going to lose this game. I’m thinking, what do I have to do?
“One of the things I had to do was be confident for them, to show confidence. Show confidence by being energetic, by making eye contact, by telling them they’re OK. By being clear about what I want them to do and then encourage them and let them know they can do it.’’
Not an easy way to think, considering the results of three previous games, and as he watched his team miss seven free throws in the last 1:22.
“In none of those games did I think we were going to lose,’’ he said. “That’s just how I am. That’s the way I’ve always been.’’
Worse in Worcester
The nightmare season continues at Holy Cross, which is 1-10 including an embarrassing loss to UMass-Boston, a Division 3 team that lost to UMass-Lowell by 33. Coach Brett Nelson didn’t sugarcoat anything.
“It’s unacceptable,” he told the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. “We’re all in this together, myself included. Our guys didn’t have the right mind-set coming into this game. We’ve got to grow up, we’ve got to learn.”
Reason to believe
Northern Iowa is a veteran team (five players on the roster have a redshirt year). They play great defense, rebound determinedly, play unselfishly on offense, make seemingly all their layups, and have dangerous 3-point shooters. The Panthers’ only loss was to West Virginia in Cancun, and they beat Colorado in Boulder. Sophomore guard A.J. Green, who’s from Cedar Falls, Iowa, so he could commute to school, is emerging as a star, especially with his ability to hit 3-pointers.
North Carolina is 6-4 and has lost three in row, including a stunning upset at home to Wofford. In losses to Ohio State and Virginia the Tar Heels failed to reach 50 points, the first time that’s happened since 1947-48.
It prompted coach Roy Williams to say, “It’s the most frustrated I’ve ever been. I’ve been very fortunate coaching-wise, but this is the most frustrated I’ve ever been. I don’t think we’re playing basketball the way I want us to play, and that’s probably the most frustrating.’’
Next up: A game at Gonzaga in Spokane.
Orange still rotten
Syracuse lost to Georgetown Saturday, even though the Hoyas lost four players who are all transferring. The Orange are 5-5, the worst 10-game start in 44 seasons under Jim Boeheim . . . Cincinnati lost to Colgate, 67-66, at home and under weird circumstances. With the score tied at 66, Cincy hurried for one final shot with Jarron Cumberland flinging up a desperation heave from nearly midcourt. It missed and in the scramble for the rebound, Jaevin Cumberland, Jarron’s brother, fouled Colgate’s Tucker Richardson, who converted the winning free throw. Cincinnati coach John Brannen explained it, saying Jaevin Cumberland did not know the score of the game. Ouch.
. . . Wyoming got crushed at home by Northern Colorado, 74-53. Fennis Dembo, we miss you.
Providence no longer plays Brown. I guess Providence coach Ed Cooley is afraid of an upset. Play the game. Local rivalries shouldn’t cease because of a desire for a couple of more cheap wins or to avoid embarrassment . . . Brown’s E.J. Perry set a single-season Ivy League record for total offense in football and has now joined the basketball team. He must feel like he’s back at Andover High . . . Prairie View A&M will win the SWAC and be in the NCAA Tournament, but the Panthers’ nonconference schedule is always a neverending road trip. By Christmas, the View will have played two road games in all four continental US times zones. It’s tough on the road. How tough? Recently, the Panthers hung tough at Arizona State before losing, 88-79, with the Sun Devils attempting 51 free throws and making 37.
I like the return of script lettering on some uniforms, starting with Boston College having “Eagles” in script. Iowa and Illinois are doing it, too . . . I also really like the retro look of “Massachusetts” across the jerseys in Amherst instead of the shortened UMass. It’s Dr. J-era . . . Colorado State has some nifty throwbacks with the word “Colorado” in script and “State Univ.” in the flourish underneath . . . North Carolina may have looked bad in terms of the result against Wofford, but the Tar Heels were wearing gorgeous throwbacks to the ’60s. Let’s bring those back permanently . . . New Mexico State is trying hard with a lot of lettering on its road uniforms. “NM State” above the number and “Aggies” below the number, but it looked cheesy. Reminded me of the lettering on my old YMCA league team . . . Louisville has a new court design with a horrible Cardinal logo. Too big and too weird.
Joe Sullivan can be reached at josephsullivan1974 @gmail.com.