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2023-24 Atlantic 10 Team Preview: Massachusetts

8. Massachusetts Minutemen

Last Season: Massachusetts athletics are in a weird phase right now: outside their awesome hockey team, they’re starting to put some money into football after they raised it to division one. Women’s basketball underwent a coaching change after Tory Verdi accepted the Pittsburgh job. Rumblings of UMass leaving the A-10 have surfaced here and there because of football, but as a former A-10 team has demonstrated (Temple), that only ends one way. The third premier sport at UMass, men’s basketball, has a strong history of hoops mostly because of Julius Erving and John Calipari. After the wicked tenure of Matt McCall’s immense talent but little results, Frank Martin got the call after he was booted from South Carolina. 

Martin pumped the program with a crap ton of talent that fits his intense style, and retained some of McCall’s men — Noah Fernandes, TJ Weeks, and Dyondre Dominguez — then filled out the roster with power five castoffs and some of his South Carolina guys. Things were going VERY well to start the season. Martin’s group started the year 9-3 and won the Myrtle Beach Invitational. They looked primed to make noise heading into conference play behind the shot-making trio of Matt Cross, superstar freshman RJ Luis, and fan favorite Noah Fernandes. They had paint enforcers with Wildens Leveque, Isaac Kante, and the promising Tafara Gapare. All the pieces were in place to upset a few teams.

And then the injuries piled up…oh did they pile up. Fernandes had a calf injury which knocked him out the rest of the season. Rahsool Diggins and RJ Luis, their anointed backcourt of the future, missed a few games and struggled with consistency — especially Diggins. Cross then dealt with pneumonia and knee problems, Leveque missed a game, Brandon Martin also missed time,Gianni Thompson got hurt in February, and Ta’Quan Wooley flat out left the team which is also not ideal. The season ended in utter humiliation when the defending A-10 champs, Richmond, held UMass to just 38 points in one of the ugliest games you could’ve ever watched. 

Injuries completely derailed what was otherwise a promising season for the Minutemen. Their offseason also started most evilly as their future star, RJ Luis, bolted for St John’s after assuring UMass fans he was here to stay. His ill-timed departure only started what was a mass exodus of important talent from Amherst. Frank Martin’s new roster is fascinating, but as insane as this may be to say, it could be an improved roster and shoot them up in the standings.

Returnees: Rahsool Diggins, Keon Thompson, Matt Cross

Out: Noah Fernandes, RJ Luis, Tafara Gapare, Wildens Leveque, Dyondre Dominguez, TJ Weeks, Gianni Thompson

In: Josh Cohen, Daniel Hankins-Sanford, Jaylen Curry, Jayden Ndijgue, Robert Davis Jr, Marqui Worthy, Sawyer Mayhugh, Mathok Majok

Potential Strengths: Martin is such a warm personality off the court — he’s insightful and gives great answers to questions. On the court, he is one of the toughest people to play for in the country. His fiery leadership dictates a demonic style of play that embodies tough defense, speed, and physical inside play. He had depth last year but it just wasn’t enough juice to overcome the injuries — they are part of sports, and everyone deals with injuries at different rates. UMass was just dealt an unlucky hand in which some were season-ending to critical pieces.

Matt Cross was a two-way scoring threat but once he went down, the whole thing fell apart. Now he’s very much healthy and looking to up his level in year two. He can score at all three levels, handle the rock, and hold things down on defense. Second-year point guard Keon Thompson was thrown into the fire after Fernandes and Diggins were immobilized, and at times he looked outmatched. But he embodied everything Martin stands for as a coach: play tough. He continued to go out there and throw his best on the floor, and this year he’ll be an integral part of the team’s leadership on both ends of the floor.

Rahsool Diggins struggled last season. Some of it falls on Fernandes’ absence, some falls on his ankle injury. Regardless, it completely disrupted his rhythm at a spot where UMass needed experience. Reports say that Diggins had a very good summer and should be in much better form this year — hopefully, that means he lives up to his former top-60 recruiting status. Martin added two big transfers for his team: the first being former gamecock Daniel Hankins-Sanford; standing at 6’8” and 233 pounds of muscle, his athleticism and strength make him a nightmare at the four spot. He can get after it on defense and provide a solid fastbreak option in a larger role this year than what he had at South Carolina.

The biggest news of their offseason was landing the best incoming transfer in the A-10 in Josh Cohen. After averaging over 21 a game and eight boards at St. Francis (PA), he’s being appointed as the most impactful A-10 transfer before the first tip of the season. He can post up anyone he pleases, pass the ball a little bit, and most importantly, finish at the rim. The Minutemen were bottom 40 when shooting at the rim (Hoop-Math), while Cohen shot 67.8% from there alone. His advanced defensive numbers weren’t that great (he’s a career -1.6 in defensive box score), but offense was a huge need for these guys. 

Potential Weaknesses: Martin is going to roll the dice this season with seven freshmen fresh out of high school who will all play big minutes. Two major factors are behind why this is both a gift and a curse: Martin’s demanding style requires a deep bench, and what better way than to take advantage of youthful energy? They’ll be going 110% for their five or so minutes to prove themselves. The downside is that the freshmen’s little legs may not be ready for this kind of intensity. However, this is a great challenge for Martin in a critical year of development and improvement.

Two neophytes that stand out are Jaylen Curry and Tarique Foster. Curry is the highest-rated of this class with an 88 composite grade (247). He’ll be important as he gives UMass shot creation and a ball handler off the bench. Foster, initially committed to VCU, ended up detouring for Amherst. He’ll add another element of athleticism which will help with defense and inside scoring, two needs for UMass. Martin also added two defensive studs: 6’4” Jayden Ndijgue and 6’3” Marqui Worthy who will provide, at minimum, ball-hawking abilities. 6’6” Robert Davis is reported to be a shooter — a tall shooter at his off-guard/small forward position which again provides more defensive potential and some mismatches in favor of UMass. 

The paint on offense should be fine with Cohen in the middle, and everyone for the most part can put the ball in the basket from close range. Mathok Majork is listed at 7’3” (Where do they find these kids???) which is a major advantage for the Minutemen on the glass, who were the best rebounding team in the A-10 at 38.3 per game — they also led in offensive boards per game at 13. Sawyer Mayhugh is also a gigantic freshman at 6’10” who should contribute down the road rather than right now. The problem lies with their big men is the lack of a shot blocker. Leveque was a player who brought that toughness by altering shots and providing a proven big body inside. Cohen isn’t much of a paint defender, and the two freshmen are very raw in that regard right now. Martin needs them to play like sophomores for this to go well.

Outlook: Barring injuries, UMass should be one of the most improved teams this season in the A-10 on both sides. Martin replenished his depth with very skilled freshmen, but can the youth avoid hitting the mid-season wall? Will they avoid injuries? Hopefully, the answer is yes this season because what happened last year happens far and few between most times. So long as at least eight or so guys can play every night, Martin’s pacey style and aggressive defense will hold up. The inexperience may lose them games as freshmen are hard to trust heavily in this new age of college basketball. Nonetheless, the promising talent will lay a great foundation and should improve upon a messy 2022-23 season.