McCall says his UMass players just 'want to play' as men's basketball program adjusts to practicing in COVID-19 era

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University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach Matt McCall didn't have to think long about the idea that his team could either start or finish a proposed season in a "bubble."

"We just want to play," McCall said. "However we can play, if there are 357 teams in an NCAA tournament and that helps generate revenue and helps colleges get back on track with everything that's been going on, we'll play. If it's a bubble in non-league that we've got to play six games somewhere, we'll play. However the Atlantic 10 decides to do it, we just want want to play.

"We're all in, however we can play."

Speaking to reporters on a Zoom call Wednesday morning, the UMass coach was asked about a recommendation by the basketball coaches in the Atlantic Coast Conference to have a 357-team NCAA Division I tournament.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski posted the reasoning for the unanimous vote by ACC coaches.

"The health and safety of our players. The incentive that there will be games, all of which lead to the NCAA Tournament. That we need to be unified as a sport — all 357 Division I teams — in competing in the game we love."

While McCall said he did not know for certain when college basketball would start for the 2020-21 season, whatever happens, the coach said "Why not? Let's do it. Celebrate college basketball.

"Boy, would it be great for TV," McCall said in answer to a question about the plan.

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McCall, who is entering his fourth season as the coach of the Minutemen, led UMass to a 14-17 record and an 8-10 mark in the Atlantic 10 Conference. The Minutemen opened last year winning their first five before losing eight of the next nine games. That included a hard-fought 12-point loss to then No. 7 Virginia at the Basketball Hall of Fame Tournament at Mohegan Sun. UMass, however, finished up by going 4-2 heading into an A-10 tournament in Brooklyn that did not get played.

McCall said his team will have its 16th workout Thursday, since returning to the Amherst campus last month. The Minutemen have been pretty structured with their schedule, and the players have had Wednesdays and Sundays off.

"We'd take one coach, one ball, one basket and we did that for, I guess it was 10 days to two weeks," McCall said in an opening statement. "Then we transitioned to six guys at a time, all skill work and no competing. Just a lot of implementing offense and defensive stuff. It's been great in terms of teaching and breaking things down, to now transitioning to two groups of six, but we're starting to compete with some one-on-ones and three-on-three.

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"If we go two weeks here with two groups of six and continue to test negative, we'll be able to have our entire team in the gym toward the middle of September, the end of September. "

The COVID-19 pandemic is what shut college basketball down last March, just as UMass was getting ready to head for Brooklyn and the A-10 tournament.

McCall said the players and staff have been tested twice a week, and have been tested at least 10 times. They are tested Tuesdays and Fridays, and generally get the results the next morning or by midday. Now that players have access to the Kennedy Champions Center, they must still be screened on entrance. The players can't have any symptoms or have temperatures over 100. There is a traffic flow so the players and coaches enter the building one way and leave it one way. Athletic trainer Dave Maclutsky has led the effort.

"We've set up times during the day where players can come in and get shots up on their own," said the coach. "We have a shooting gun on each end. Every time we use a basketball, it has to be wiped down. Our staff is fully masked up at all times during the workouts. They never come down. When we're spaced out and they're doing things, our players do have them down. When you're trying to compete or go up and down the floor, run and do drills, at times it can be tough and difficult for them."

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The coach said that as long as he is alone in his office, he is unmasked. Whenever the staff meets, they are masked.

There are 12 Minutemen on this year's squad, 11 plus transfer Noah Fernandes, who has not had his transfer request from Wichita State approved by the NCAA. Four of the players — Javohn Garcia, Dyondre Dominguez, Cairo McCrory and Ronnie DeGray III — are freshmen.

"The biggest adjustment, I would say right now for us, is just our new guys in terms on the online learning," McCall said. "Being completely remote, and you have freshmen who have really never had to do that before, where all their classes are online. Normally, we would be able to have a tutor sitting with them, assisting them, helping them with learning. You can't have that. It's all remote. You have to do all that on line.

"That's a challenge for our freshmen. It's taken some getting used to."

McCall said his team is preparing for a season that won't start on time, and could start as late as January. Dan Gavitt, the NCAA's senior vice president of basketball, said that he is looking at a mid-September date to announce when the formal college basketball practice season will begin, with a game schedule to follow.

"It was really, really exciting on Aug. 10, when those guys moved into North Apartments on campus, just to have everybody back. We've got all 12 guys living in the same building. We have four guys to an apartment right now. They're all there, in terms of we know where everybody is at all times," McCall said. "The day those guys moved in was exciting. The first day we worked out was 72 hours after that. It was a Saturday morning. I came zooming around the corner in my Ford Raptor [truck] honking the horn as loud as I could, just out of the excitement to get back in the gym with our guys."

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


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