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UMass men’s basketball has success that doesn’t show in the numbers

UMass coach Matt McCall likes his players’ attitude. “You’ve got guys who really, really care about being here,” he says.
UMass coach Matt McCall likes his players’ attitude. “You’ve got guys who really, really care about being here,” he says.jessica hill/AP/FR125654 AP via AP

The numbers measure the season accurately for the UMass men’s basketball team. The Minutemen are 9-13 overall, 3-6 in the Atlantic 10, and 1-7 on the road, including an ugly 85-50 loss to Davidson Saturday. Plus, they shoot only 42 percent from the field, have been outrebounded for the season, and have more turnovers than assists.

Coach Matt McCall, however, thinks all of those numbers add up to something surprising.

“I think this season has been a success,’’ he said. “Not because of wins and losses but because of where we were culturally a year ago. We are in a far better place.”

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He knows his team has a long way to go, and he’s frustrated by the inconsistency, how they win two straight at home then fail to compete at Davidson. Despite that, he loves his team.

‘’This is a completely new group that brings their energy level to practice every day at a high, high level,’’ he said. “They want to be coached, they want to be pushed. Their attitudes and their efforts are through the roof. Even after losses, we have to keep fighting, keep punching. Keep putting them in positions to be successful.’’

McCall talks about culture a lot. It can be difficult to measure, but he has examples, pointing out how UMass’s play-by-play announcer, Jay Burnham, told him how great it was that McCall’s players attended a women’s basketball game.

“Looking back to the spring when we were recruiting, we wanted to have guys who wanted to be here, who had a passion for UMass,’’ he said. “It’s not just women’s basketball. Our guys go to the soccer games, they go to the hockey games, they go to the football games.

“They support every sport on campus, which just shows that, culturally, we’re moving in the right direction because you’ve got guys who really, really care about being here.’’

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With culture solved, McCall may have a different problem. He’s been tinkering with his rotation all season and just recently inserted two freshmen, Preston Santos and Kolton Mitchell, into the starting lineup. He also adjusted how he’s using sophomore Dibaji Walker, a player he has big expectations for, moving him to power forward. If his roster stays intact next season, he’ll have 11 returning players plus two freshmen.

The one thing that’s certain is that everything will revolve around Tre Mitchell, the 6-foot-9-inch forward, who most likely will be voted A10 Freshman of the Year. Shooting guard Carl Pierre should also be a reliable starter. The other nine are difficult to separate.

Point guard Sean East had a great start to the season, but his shot seemingly deserted him and his playing time has decreased. T.J. Weeks, who was showing signs of being an outside threat, had hernia surgery and is out for the season.

“We’re kind of settling in on a rotation here and playing, a lot of times, guys who are giving maximum effort every single day,’’ said McCall. “And that’s why those three freshmen are starting. All of sudden you come in with Sean East, who’s so talented. He’s had his ups and downs, but he’s still had big-time games for us early.

“We’ve got a good group, but we just have to continue to get better. And they’re young, that’s the biggest thing.

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“The guy to me that’s really elevated is Preston Santos. I’ve told him to put all his focus on the defensive end of the floor, defending and rebounding. He’s done that. He’s done every single thing I’ve asked him to do. That’s why he’s earned more minutes.’’

The Minutemen face a far more difficult task than Davidson when they play Rhode Island Tuesday night. The Rams, who just beat VCU decisively, are an A10 contender and look NCAA-bound.

■   Mullins entertainment: The atmosphere at the Mullins Center has improved, although the crowds still aren’t great. Sign Man, a staple during the Calipari/Camby days and looking like a retired hippie, is back, walking around with his homemade signs during timeouts. He reminded us during Wednesday’s game against the Saint Joseph’s Hawks that the Mullins Center was a No Flapping Zone. The UMass pep band can compete against any other, plus baton twirler Ally Littlefield, a student from Middleboro, has been performing. Littlefield, who’s been to the national championships seven times, is spectacular.

■   The lost weekend: It was an especially painful one on the road for Harvard and Northeastern.

The Crimson fell behind early by double figures against both Penn and Princeton. They battled back valiantly but lost in overtime to Penn, 75-72, and in regulation, 70-69, to Princeton.

It’s becoming clear that without the injured Bryce Aiken, it’s going to be difficult going for Harvard. His return is uncertain.

This week, the Crimson have to travel to Yale and Brown, another difficult road trip. The top four teams make the Ivy League Tournament, and it’s hard to imagine Harvard not qualifying, especially since the Crimson will be hosting the event, but it’s not impossible.

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Northeastern was victimized again by William & Mary’s Nathan Knight, the front-runner for CAA player of the year, in last Thursday’s 59-58 loss. Just as he did in Boston a few weeks ago, he drove to the basket and scored the winning basket with just seconds remaining.

The Huskies could not bounce back in a 74-69 loss at Elon Saturday. They played from behind most of the night before seizing the lead in the second half, but let it slip away in the final minute and a half.

The Huskies have lost six CAA games by a total of 14 points. Like Harvard, the next challenge is difficult, with a road game at Hofstra Saturday.

■   A big chance, Part 1: Boston College can change the course of its season when Duke comes to Conte Forum Tuesday night. The Eagles have to be feeling good about themselves after beating North Carolina, 71-70, Saturday, but they will need an even better effort against Duke.

Against the Tar Heels, Nick Popovic reemerged with a nice game, and the Eagles held their own on the boards and didn’t turn it over too much. They’ll have to repeat that to have any chance to beat Duke.

■   A big chance, Part 2: Boston University has won three in a row, including an impressive 77-57 victory at Bucknell Saturday. Next come winnable games at Army and against Holy Cross at home. Then Patriot League leader Colgate comes to Boston next Monday. The Terriers trail Colgate by one game in the standings.

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■   Holy mackerel, Merrimack again: The Warriors remain in first place the NEC at 9-1 and are on an eight-game winning streak. They do it by playing a baffling, amorphous zone defense coupled with very patient offense. The zone produces 10.4 steals per game, which ranks fifth in the country. Guard Juvaris Hayes averages 3.8 steal per game, tops in the nation.

Because the Warriors are in the first year of a four-year transition, the team and players are not officially ranked in the NCAA statistics.

Offense doesn’t come as easily for the Warriors, but coach Joe Gallo says, “It’s good enough to win.’’

Like some other teams, the Warriors are facing a road trip this week, going to FDU and LIU.