Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: UMass basketball players raring to go

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AMHERST — Twenty-three days from now it starts for real at the University of Massachusetts.

"It's come fast," guard Carl Pierre said. "It's kind of unbelievable."

Pierre and his Minuteman teammates actually have a closed scrimmage and an exhibition game against Division III Westfield State before opening the 2018-19 campaign on Tuesday, Nov. 6, against Dalton's Pat Duquette and his UMass Lowell squad.

"It feels like just yesterday, it was summer time, lifting weights and just doing individuals [workouts]," Pierre said during a media availability on Thursday. "I'm really excited to get on the floor with the new guys and get ready to compete again."

Pierre isn't the only one who can't believe the season is right around the corner.

"Yeah, it's coming and it's coming fast," UMass coach Matt McCall said.

It is Year 2 of the McCall era at UMass. Record-wise, last season was nothing to write home about as UMass finished 13-20 and was 5-13 in the Atlantic 10. The Minutemen did beat LaSalle in the first round of the A-10 tournament in Washington, D.C., before losing to George Mason.

This season, McCall had a full year to prepare for the campaign. He had 12 months to recruit, and four transfers are now eligible to play.

"Twelve months ago, there were so many unknowns," McCall told me. "Everything was new for everybody out on the floor. Early in September, Jaylen Brantley was taken from us [with a heart condition], and you're thinking he's going to be a guy who's going to play 30-35 minutes a game, with the minutes he logged in college [at Maryland]. There were some unknowns at the point guard spot. Luwane [Pipkins] hadn't played a ton of minutes there, and we were going to have to rely on him a lot. We just had limited bodies, rolling out to start the year with eight scholarship guys. Now, there are a lot more bodies on the floor.

"Every day's not new."

It is kind of new for the seven newcomers to the UMass roster. Transfers Kieran Haywood, Keon Clergeot, Curtis Cobb and Jonathan Laurent were all here last year, but had to sit out. They were able to watch and learn.

Incoming freshman guard Tre Wood and wings Samba Diallo and Sy Chatman are learning as they go.

"You've got four transfers who haven't played in a year. You have Rashaan [Holloway], who hasn't played in a semester and you've got three freshman," McCall said. "There's going to be some rust and there's going to be some growing that we're going to have to do as a team as we move forward here."

While the new arrivals are learning McCall's system, at least it isn't brand new for a majority of the players in maroon and white.

"I told our guys [Thursday] that we've got a long way to go. When we scrimmage and we play our exhibition, there are going to be five starters out there. Points and minutes and all that stuff are about to get distributed. Do you keep the focus on your team, or does the focus shift to yourself?

"In order for us to be good this year, the focus has got to be on the team."

It's a reasonably comfortable start of the season, schedule-wise, for the Minutemen. After the game with Lowell, UMass will host New Hampshire and Harvard, before playing two home games in the Las Vegas Holiday Invitational against Howard University and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Those teams were a combined 63-99 last year, with only Harvard (18-14) having a winning record.

Those games will be important to the UMass psyche, because the Minutemen will close out December with road games at Providence and Temple before going to Georgia right after Christmas.

"I don't think anybody's experienced the NCAA Tournament. I don't think anybody's experienced a championship," said McCall. "We've got to buy into everything that we're doing. The playing hard piece is there.

"Now we have to get better at the execution piece."

The Minutemen have three weeks to do that.

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.


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