UMass men's basketball coach Matt McCall staying busy by looking to future

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AMHERST — Navigating through the coronavirus pandemic the past two-plus months has been a challenge for just about everyone. University of Massachusetts basketball coach Matt McCall is no exception.

"It's been a challenge for my wife. It's a challenge for me. As much as my kids like it, they're also not used to seeing me every second of every day," McCall said. "One daughter's in Kindergarten, one daughter's in pre-school. That dynamic is a challenge."

McCall said he has spent more time at home over the past two months than he had in his entire college coaching career.

That has given him time to do a lot of thinking about the past season, and a lot of self-scouting.

"I think it's been not just watching tape, because our team is going to look different next year," McCall said. "We've got a good core coming back. But it's really been more of what were some of the themes, some of the things we did well, what were some of the things we didn't do well? Looking back at my notes, offensively and defensively from every single game, where are areas that we need to get better?

"It just seems like, for me, since I've been here, we have struggled getting easy baskets."

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The 2020-21 Minutemen will, in fact, look different. While the core group that includes Tre Mitchell, Carl Pierre, T.J. Weeks, Kolton Mitchell, Dibaji Walker and Preston Santos along with John Buggs III, who played four games before being lost to injury — are back, McCall will have to work in several new faces. There are five newcomers, plus transfer Noah Fernandes, who will need a waiver to play this coming winter.

So. with a large group of new Minutemen, McCall said he and his staff have been going over tendencies, specific items, and not just self-scouting old tapes.

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"What are we doing transition offense-wise or what are we not doing that we need to be better at? We struggled last year at times guarding pick-and-rolls. How can we get better in those areas?" he said. "That's been more of our focus and less watching every single game from last year and more like how do we want to play next year? What does our offense look like when we're going to have Noah Fernandes, if we're fortunate enough to get him eligible? How are we going to play with [graduate transfer Mark] Gasperini and Tre Mitchell on the floor together? Different things like that.

"I'm trying to do as many Zoom clinics and watch film and learn and grow as a coach, a lot of personal improvement, to be honest with you."

One other thing he has had is a lot of time to think about the 2019-20 season, a year where the Minutemen went 14-17, missed the play-in round of the Atlantic 10 Conference, and were set to face VCU in the tournament when the pandemic put the brakes on all college spots

"Better, worse, I don't look at it that way," McCall said, in an interview with The Eagle. "I think that we got better. I think that our team, throughout the course of the season, was dealing with different things, like every team is."

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It was a UMass team that started 5-0, played two tough games — both losses — against reigning national champion Virginia and then St. John's on a run that began a 2-12 skid. That was before finishing 7-5.

"We felt like we should have won the St. John's game. Then we hit a buzz saw with two tough road games at Rutgers and Harvard," said McCall, "and then boom, down goes T.J. Weeks."

Between the loss of John Buggs III in the opening days to the loss of Weeks and Kolton Mitchell to injury, to Sy Chatman and the installation of Dibaji Walker, there were "significant pieces missing in December," McCall said.

"We got the young guys to really buy in to what we were talking about. How hard you had to play every single night, and they did that," the UMass coach said. "We kept rewarding the effort. The guys who have given the most effort are the guys who are going to be out there on the floor. The guys that have given the most effort day in and day out are the guys we were going to start and play the most minutes.

"That's what happened."


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