McCall feeling 'different energy level' in his UMass basketball program

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AMHERST — Matt McCall pondered the question: Where did the time go?

"It's crazy to think that we're here," McCall said. "Obviously, it's been a long off-season. There are a lot of changes, a lot of new faces. I can tell you this: In the three years that I've been here, I've never really enjoyed going down to practice as much as I do now. That's not a knock on anybody that was here before.

"There's just a different energy level in the gym."

McCall, his new staff and a team with only five returning players are practicing in preparation for the start of the 2019-20 college basketball season. That's a season that will officially arrive in 33 days, when Pat Duquette's UMass Lowell River Hawks visit the Mullins Center on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

"They give you 30 days, and we can't waste a single one," said McCall during an interview with The Eagle in his office at the Champions Center. "In two of those days, you spend playing against other opponents. Really, you're down to 28. Those 28 days of practice are vital. We cannot waste a single day with such a young group. We have to make sure that we're growing, we're improving and we're getting better every single day."

McCall leads the Minutemen into his third year, having gone 11-21 last year. In two seasons, the Minutemen have gone 24-41, but in each of those two seasons there has been one common denominator — the churning roster.

There will be more of the same this year, but this time, the coach said he thinks he might have the right mix.

It might have seemed right if McCall had handed out "Hello, my name is..." tags for his players and coaching staff when they gathered in the summer. After all, not only does McCall have a new coaching staff, but only one of the top five scorers from last year returns. There are only five returnees on the 14-player roster.

On the coaching staff, only Lucious Jordan is back, but the former UAlbany standout moved from being director of operations to being an assistant coach.

"They're eager," McCall said. "They're eager to be coached, eager to learn and eager to want to be a part of changing something. That's what makes it fun."

When McCall met with media members back in June, the third-year coach admitted that things had to change.

"One NCAA Tournament in 21 years, that's where UMass has been," McCall said at the time. "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."

That led, in part, to the hiring of assistants Jordan, Tony Bergeron and Tyson Wheeler, and the recruitment of seven freshmen.

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Those freshmen were part of the UMass trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands in August. McCall said that they all played serious minutes. That will be an important point because of the five returning veterans, only Carl Pierre and Keon Clergeot averaged more than 20 minutes per game.

Pierre was second on the team in scoring at 11.8 points per game, trailing only Luwane Pipkins, who has transferred to Providence. Clergeot was last year's No. 6 scorer, averaging 7.5 points per game. Two of last year's freshmen, Sy Chatman and Samba Diallo, will be looked to to score more than their 3.7 and 3.5 points per game, respectively.

And as to the newcomers?

"Tre Mitchell's reputation speaks for itself. Physically, he's so ready to play at this level," McCall said of the 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward from Pittsburgh via Woodstock Academy, where he played for Bergeron.

Mitchell was a consensus four-star prospect, and the No. 82 prospect in the nation, according to Rivals.com. The New England Recruiting Report listed Mitchell as No. 6 in New England and No. 2 in Connecticut.

"He can score with his back to the basket. He can step out and shoot threes," McCall said. "He's a natural leader in how he carries himself and how he goes about his day."

The other name that pops right into McCall's head is a legacy who earned his way to Amherst.

T.J. Weeks, a 6-4 shooting guard from Warwick, R.I., is the son of former UMass standout Tyrone Weeks. Weeks is a two-star recruit, who has done nothing but impress the coaching staff.

"He's a little bit older than everybody else. He's physically ready to get into a college game," McCall said.

While those two players were the first two names McCall thought of, the UMass coach said that many of the seven freshmen, along with sophomore transfer Tibaji Walker, could see a lot of playing time.

"Everyone's going to get an opportunity, to be honest with you, with how we want to play," the coach said. "We want to pick up 94 feet and do those types of things. Everyone's going to get their chance and get their opportunity. I think it's still a little early to tell how much certain guys will play. We like our depth.

"Really from six to 13 on our team, there's not a huge gap right now, and we'll figure out through practice who really rises and whose opportunity will be a little more than some other guys."

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


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