WALFISH: Time has come for McCall to be a leader for UMass

  • UMass head coach Matt McCall, center, applauds his team play in the first half of a Dec. 20, 2019, game against Maine at the Mullins Center in Amherst. AP File

Published: 1/19/2020 9:09:40 PM
Modified: 1/19/2020 9:08:40 PM

Matt McCall talks about the fine line when coaching his basketball team, especially on offense.

He wants to find a balance between the actual sets and plays UMass has in its arsenal and letting talented players like Sean East and Tre Mitchell make plays. When everything is in harmony, the Minutemen are a joy to watch on offense as the ball whizzes around the court and the shots are open and fall with ease.

Lately, UMass has been cringeworthy on offense because it lacks an identity and a focus. It feels like instinct has taken command of the offense from structure, and it’s not working. These freshmen are playing like it right now as they try to force what worked for them in high school work in the Atlantic 10. 

Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t.

After Saturday’s embarrassing 75-51 loss to George Washington, McCall correctly put a lot of the blame on himself for his team’s performance. The Minutemen looked like the coach had lost control over the offense as everyone on the court was seemingly in their own world about what to do. East put himself in isolation plays a lot toward the end of the first half and missed tough runners. Mitchell was hovering near the 3-point arc quite a bit in the second half, getting away from the interior game that has treated him so well lately.

McCall probably called some plays in the second half, and perhaps UMass even ran a set or two, but now is the time for the third-year coach to get ahold of his team. It’s in the best interest of the team for McCall to actually be a coach and take some of the power back from the players, especially on offense.

Although it will stunt the creativity East brings to the floor, it’s better for the freshman point guard to simply execute what’s already in the UMass playbook. Right now, East’s creative bursts are hurting the Minutemen more than they are helping them because they’re either resulting in difficult shots or putting East in bad positions to make a pass and restart the motion. There are plenty of actions that will allow him to get downhill toward the basket and allow him to use his strengths as a point guard.

The same holds true for Mitchell, who can shoot 3-pointers and be a threat on the perimeter but is much better as a post player. He scored 28 points Wednesday against St. Bonaventure while attempting just one 3-pointer  — which he made —  and working his way to the foul line bu battling inside. If UMass can establish Mitchell as a dominant post scorer, that will open up the floor for his teammates, and that will jump start the Minutemen on offense. 

McCall knows this is all true, too, but he’s been afraid of taking away the instinctual part of the game from his players. However, right now, those inner feelings are off on the offensive end of the floor, and it’s resulting in the Minutemen trying to do too much individually. That has never been a successful strategy in Division I basketball unless you’re a next-generation talent, which no one is on the UMass roster.

The defense is a far different story for UMass, one that requires McCall to really go back to the drawing board as a coach. The Minutemen cannot defend anyone man-to-man in the halfcourt right now, which is the main staple of every college basketball team’s defensive playbook. They have been soft at defending the rim, they’ve been an open gate when defending pick-and-rolls and none of their guards have been able to actually keep someone in front of them.

That is a coaching issue and it falls on McCall’s shoulder, which he gladly accepted Saturday. Maybe UMass does need to go to a zone defense – it worked well against George Washington – but that also requires some tweaks to the Minutemen’s press. But maybe it also requires McCall to hold his players accountable in game and go with the guys who will actually execute.

That might mean going back to Tre Mitchell with two fouls in the first half because UMass has lost its way on offense with Djery Baptiste on the floor. That might mean limiting minutes for East on nights like Saturday where he was inefficient and letting Kolton Mitchell play more. It means making decisions like benching Keon Clergeot on Saturday because he never found his flow.

As McCall said after Saturday’s loss, there is no excuse except coaching for how a team with so much potential could perform as poorly as UMass did against George Washington. The time is now for McCall to be the coach that this team needs right now and be the leader and decision maker. He’s the one who knows what it takes to win at this level, so he should be leading the way on how to do it. 

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.


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