A season that started with optimism and promise ended quickly on the basketball court at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“When the clock was running down, I was really disappointed,” UMass guard R.J. Luis said in a postgame press conference after the Minutemen were one-and-done in the Atlantic 10 Conference postseason tournament.
“We weren’t playing how we were supposed to,” Luis said on Tuesday. “Just staying within the team. I know you said I’m a freshman, but seeing the older guys end the season like this doesn’t really sit well with me.”
It most likely doesn’t sit well with anyone — from first-year coach Frank Martin and his staff, to the players, to the folks who pay their money to watch games at the Mullins Center, and even to those who battle it out with others on social media — the 2022-23 season was not anywhere near what was expected out of the Minutemen.
At one point in the season, UMass was 7-1 and all one could see were sunshine and rainbows. Then came a loss at home to UMass Lowell, a game that Lowell coach Pat Duquette said was one of the key points in the River Hawks’ successful season.
After the 7-1 record, the Minutemen finished 8-15 for a 15-16 final mark.
There can be little doubt that had preseason All-Atlantic 10 second teamer Noah Fernandes played more than 11 games, the 15-16 record would have, at worst case, been flipped.
“I’m at a great place, and we’re going to get this thing done,” Martin said to reporters in Brooklyn. “We’ve got a core of guys in that locker room that are in it for the long haul and they’re in it to build and grow, and become really good. I have an unbelievable staff.
“We saw snapshots of a style of play, of success.”
Martin and his staff could not turn those snapshots into a movie of any length, which is why the UMass season ended with a whimper instead of a bang.
If you read social media, the season was anywhere from a disappointment to a disaster. Take a breath.
The season did not end as it had begun, and that is disappointing to UMass Nation. Injuries during the season to Wildens Leveque, Luis and Matt Cross did not help. Cross’ knee injury down the stretch was especially painful, literally and figuratively. He was UMass’ best player right before the injury and having your two best players in sweats and not having a deep enough bench to weather that, had much to do with the 15-16 final record.
Of the last eight UMass coaches who finished their first season with double figure wins, only Bruiser Flint won more games. That was in the 1996-97 season and Flint won 19 games after UMass had gone 35-2 the year before and made it to the Final Four.
Steve Lappas won 13 games in his first year, as did Travis Ford and Matt McCall. Derek Kellogg won 12 in his first season as the UMass head coach.
“The season teaches you to win or teaches you to lose. The adversity that we dealt with this season, as the season wore on, taught us to lose,” Martin said. “We gave in to adversity and that was disappointing, but that’s part of the lessons that you have to learn when you’re building and going through things. We’ve had some bright moments. We had some really good games. We showed ability to play a certain way and we showed the ability to play some really bad basketball too.
“Unfortunately, that’s not what I envisioned in September. It’s definitely not what I envisioned when we walked off the court in Myrtle Beach with a trophy. It’s not what I envisioned when we went into Harvard and figured out how to win a game when we were dealing of adversity. But it’s the reality of what we became.”
So, what does the future look like in Amherst?
Last week, UMass honored Leveque, Brandon Martin, T.J. Weeks Jr., Fernandes, and John Kelly on Senior Day.
The nucleus of next year’s team, assuming the transfer portal does not take any players away, starts with Cross, Luis, Keon Thompson and Dyondre Dominguez. Add to that group a group of four, according to verbalcommits.com, signees and the Minutemen start in a slightly better spot than Martin did a year ago.
Sawyer Mayhugh, a 6-foot-10 wing from Brewster Academy, is the big man coming in. Jayden Ndjigue, a 6-foot-4 guard from Rivers School, Robert Davis Jr., a 6-6 wing from Southern California Academy and Marqui Worthy, a 6-4 guard from Veritas Prep in California, are all part of the incoming class. If one or more of these players can be volume 3-point shooters, the Minutemen will be much better.
Part of the problem that UMass had was that on numerous occasions, scoring points easily could be a chore. So often, UMass had to work hard to score points and that made it harder for the Minutemen to make comebacks.
Martin was very good working the Transfer Portal last year, and will need to be creative again. The first player I would contact is Harvard’s Chris Ledlum. Ledum is a 6-6 wing who had 25 points and 10 rebounds in the UMass win in Boston.
As D-I coaches begin to lose their jobs, the portal will fill up, and it will be up to Martin and his staff to navigate those players and perhaps bring in the right ones to put the Minutemen back on a possible track for postseason play.
It’s the only thing that will soothe UMass Nation. It won’t be easy, but it is doable.