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UMass notebook: UMass hockey adjusting to ranked life

  • Curtis Cobb, right, runs a drill with Unique McLean during UMass basketball practice, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 at the Champions Center.

  • University of Massachusetts head coach Mark Whipple talks with redshirt junior quarterback Michael Curtis as he comes off the field in the second quarter of the Minutemen's 49-31 win over Charlotte on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, at Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst.

  • Cale Makar (16) against Queens at the Mullins Center on September 30, 2017.

  • UMass Head Coach Greg Carvel, top, talks to his team during their game against Colorado College, Friday at the Mullins Center.



Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2018

AMHERST — For the first time in eight years, UMass will play a hockey game as a ranked team.

The Minutemen (3-1-0) climbed to No. 16 in the latest U.S. College Hockey Online poll this week after splitting a two-game series with then-No. 1 Ohio State. However, no one was overly excited about the ranking, especially since it comes only four games into the season.

“It’s cool to see we’re a ranked team and we’re getting the recognition that we deserve,” sophomore defenseman Cale Makar said. “But at the end of the day, we’re four games into the season and we have a long ways to go to where we want to be and what we think we can be. We look at it as a stepping stone and nothing more than that.”

The ranking is indicative of the progress UMass has made under coach Greg Carvel over the past two-plus seasons. The Minutemen were an afterthought in Hockey East for many people, especially after winning just two conference games in 22 tries two years ago. Even with a stellar recruiting class coming in, the expectations were still low and UMass used that to its advantage to sneak up on teams.

Now the Minutemen are a team everyone is chasing and wary of not only in Hockey East, but across the country. It has forced a shift in mindset for a team used to being the underdog into now having to deal with the weight of being the favorite and being consistent enough to receive every team’s best shot.

“It puts a target on our back,” sophomore forward Mitchell Chaffee said. “Last year coming in, not a lot of teams thought of us as a big team. Compare that to this year, we’ve kind of turned it around and we’re not going to catch people as off guard. We know there’s a target on our back, so now we need to go out there and play the way we can.”

UMASS ON THE DEFENSIVE — So much of the conversation around basketball is dictated by offense. It’s a question of how many points you can score and not how few points you can allow.

Last year, UMass has its struggles on the defensive end of the floor, allowing 80 or more points in regulation nine times during Atlantic 10 play in the regular season. Unsurprisingly, the Minutemen lost all of those games. The only time UMass won when a team scored 80 last season was when an 86-82 triumph over Dayton that took two overtimes.

This season, the Minutemen are deeper and more athletic, which coach Matt McCall said should lead to a much different defensive output this year.

“The one thing that was hard for us last year is our length and our athleticism we really lacked, and we’ve got it now,” McCall said. “We’re able to be in our gaps and create more turnovers. I told them (Monday), ‘We want long twos and turnovers’ that’s what we want our defense to do. We’ll be able to do that with our press and in the halfcourt, too, just with our length and athleticism.”

McCall has only been able to install his primary press and UMass’ man-to-man defense so far, and said he will work on installing a secondary defense and a secondary press before the season opener on Nov. 6 against UMass-Lowell. Without a scouting report, the Minutemen turned in a fantastic half of defense in the first half of their Saturday closed-door scrimmage against Siena, which earned rave reviews from McCall.

The importance of defense is not lost on the players, either, who know that end of the court will make a difference if UMass is going to climb up the A-10 standings this season.

“We’re looking to compete for the rest of this week then just building up into the season and anchor down on that end of the floor,” sophomore Carl Pierre said. “If we can buy into that end of the floor, we can be very good.”

FIELD GOALS THE ENEMY — Mark Whipple admitted it is easy to second guess himself after a loss.

As he was reviewing the tape from Saturday’s 24-13 loss to Coastal Carolina, the veteran football coach said he probably should have run the ball more against the Chanticleers. Excluding the six sacks that subtracted 41 yards from the rushing total, UMass ran the ball 16 times for 104 yards.

But the bigger issue Whipple needs to tackle this week is figuring out how to turn field goals into touchdowns. The Minutemen entered the red zone four times against Coastal Carolina and left with two field goals, a fumble and a turnover on downs.

“We saw the red zone was an issue,” Whipple said. “We missed a couple of throws, and we missed a couple of plays. The holding calls hurt and we missed a couple of blocks that would have led to big plays in the pass game and the run game.”

That is where the running game could play a larger role. Against the 109th-ranked rushing defense, UMass ran 15 plays that began inside the Chanticleers’ 30-yard line. Only three of those plays were rushes, and two of those runs were Andrew Ford. Whipple said Tuesday he called another running play, but the call changed after a false start on UMass.

UConn ranks 128th out of 129 FBS teams in rushing defense, which should give UMass’ trio of backs plenty of chances to convert those missed opportunities into touchdowns.

“I probably should have run the ball a little bit more, our carries were pretty good,” Whipple said. “Going back, you always second-guess yourself. There were times when we probably should have run it a bit more, probably down in the red zone. … Marquis (Young) should be back, Jordan (Fredericks) has gotten better and Bilal (Ally) has been good, so we need to have better balance.”

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.