Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: UMass hoops coach not worried about youthful roster

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AMHERST — It had been a while since we had seen and heard from University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach Matt McCall. When he met with reporters on Wednesday morning, he jumped in with both feet."It's been a very challenging two years and a very difficult two months," he said. "Especially right after the season, with a number of different things from our roster to our staff. Nobody takes more ownership about where we are than me. I'm not placing blame on anyone, or any person or anything. As the leader, I have to own where our program is."

McCall's team went 11-21 last year, and 4-14 in the Atlantic 10. They were 9-8 at home and lost 11 of 12 official road games.

When the season ended, eight players with remaining eligibility moved on, while Rashaan Holloway graduated. Then McCall decided to make changes in his coaching staff. His entire group of assistant coaches, including former college head coach Cliff Warren, Rasheen Davis and Peter Gash, were not renewed. McCall does have a new staff working. The school, however, has not completed its paperwork on the coaches, so UMass has not yet announced their hirings.

There were seven players on the spring roster, which included quarterback Randall West. With the exception of Carl Pierre, the other returnees have not spent more than a season on the floor in the Mullins Center. When you add in seven newcomers, it's going to be a pretty inexperienced team that will take the floor in November.

That task, however, does not appear to be a daunting one.

"Understanding where the program was and where we're trying to get to, we had to go through some of these difficult times, to grow as a coach, to grow as a leader and to see exactly what this program needs," he said.

McCall said he knows the history, and his next statement might have been pretty painful for Minuteman Nation.

"One NCAA Tournament in 21 years, that's where UMass has been," McCall said. "To get back there, drastic things and drastic changes needed to happen in a lot of different areas. I think it took going through two difficult seasons to see that."

Difficult seasons might be an understatement.

McCall's first year was 13-20, but it was a year that included a surprising upset over Georgia.

Last year was rough from the start. The Minutemen were just okay at home, but awful on the road. There were no signature wins.

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This might be another difficult season, but for a much different reason.

Pierre is the only real veteran on the roster so far. Of the seven new recruits, all of them either just graduated high school or graduated from a prep school. There are no graduate transfers coming in, and only one — Djery Baptiste — on the roster. McCall was asked about how young his team will be.

"I wanted guys that wanted to be here, guys that wanted to work, guys that wanted to get better and guys that had a passion to be here," the third-year coach said. "Young, old, transfer, non-transfer, that was the prerequisite. I think we've addressed that. I think every guy we're bringing into the program right now has a hunger to get better and wants to be here."

Three of the seven — John Buggs, Jr., T.J. Weeks and Sean East — have all been on campus. Yes, T.J. Weeks is the son of former UMass great Tyrone Weeks.

"I leave the office on Friday at 5:30-5:45, and John Buggs is going and taking full-court layups in a full sweat on 5:30 on a Friday," McCall said. "It goes to show you that the culture was shifting. We're going to be young. We have seven freshmen, but I don't look at them as freshmen."

Weeks might be the sentimental favorite among UMass fans, but 6-foot-9 center Tre Mitchell from Woodstock Academy in Connecticut via Elizabeth Forward High School in the Pittsburgh suburbs might be their best player. Mitchell is the No. 73 player in the country according to ESPN, and is ranked 72nd by Rivals and 17th by rivals for all centers. He has been a Hoophall Classic MVP twice.

McCall will be taking the Minutemen to the U.S. Virgin Islands in August, to play some preseason games. With young teams, trips like this can be critical for their rapid development.

"Being able to practice for 10 days, being able to play three games or maybe a fourth, while we're down in the Virgin Islands is going to be big," he said. "The energy level, the excitement and the want to be here is through the roof."

If what Matt McCall says in June can translate to the basketball court in November and December, UMass could surprise some teams. That is, however, another big if.

But listening to McCall makes you long for November, and the start of basketball season.

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


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