UMass basketball notebook: Winning start demands more effort from Minutemen

By KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer

Published: 01-10-2023 5:58 PM

AMHERST – Winning elicits a different level of intensity from opponents. After a 9-3 start in nonconference play, the UMass men’s basketball team hasn’t always matched what its first three Atlantic 10 foes have brought.

“When you lose games, it's easy because the reason you lose is you deflect. When you win games, it gets harder because now there's an unbelievable amount of pressure internally, who cares about the outside, about having to do your job better,” UMass coach Frank Martin said. “Because when you're winning games, the opponent brings you a different personality. They bring a different aggression to the game, so you have to do things better because people respect winners. We're trying to understand how to manage that moment right now.”

Martin is also still in the process of understanding his team. He’s said they’re “in their feelings” after losses at St. Bonaventure and George Washington. Those feelings need to be directed toward collective effort rather than individual exertion.

“The more you win, the more you succeed, the more you have to work. It's not the other way around. It's not like the more you win, the less you work,” Martin said. “You’ve got to find consistency through all that and you got to go through it.”

The Minutemen (10-5, 1-2 A-10) are willing to go through it together. They’re still figuring each other out, too.

“Everybody's trying to still figure out their roles and what we all can bring to the table because we're all different in different ways. It’s just taking some time,” UMass forward Brandon Martin said. “We’ll show a glimpse of different things and we'll make good plays and then we'll make some bad plays. We’re just trying to still get a feel, but it's getting there.”

UMass thinks it will get there. The Minutemen believe in their coach and what they’ve built.

“It'll click like, it'll show. You'll see when we play more as a unit and as a team instead of being hesitant sometimes trying to do stuff on our own,” Brandon Martin said. “I think when we all click together, we'll be able to show what we can really do.”

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ELDER STATESMAN – Fran Dunphy returned to his alma mater La Salle this offseason, taking over his third of Philadelphia’s Big Five college basketball programs after previously spending time with Temple and Penn. 

“When I heard he was coming back, I called them right away. The game is better. Young people are better because he's in it,” Frank Martin said. “He might be the most under appreciated, really good coach in this business in my lifetime. He's an unbelievable basketball coach. He's an incredible human being.”

Dunphy has the Explorers (7-8, 1-1) a game under .500 after an overtime home win against Rhode Island that followed a 1-4 stretch. UMass hosts La Salle at 7 p.m. Wednesday (NESN).

“He elevates the lives of the people he touches. And that's, that's going to happen at La Salle,” Martin said. “I see it happening with his team right now. I saw them play a game early in the year, and now I've been studying them for the last three nights and he's got him playing completely different than they did back in November. I'm really happy for him. I'm not happy I'm coaching against him. He makes it harder to win when you're the opponent, but he's what's right about our business.”

La Salle has the league’s third best turnover margin (0.6). Khalil Brantley leads the Explorers averaging 15.1 points per game to go along with 4.8 rebounds per contest and 50 assists. Josh Nickleberry also reaches double figures at 11.6 points per game.

“They defend. They don't get out of the way. They're connected on offense and connected on defense,” Frank Martin said. “They do not turn the ball over, which is a staple of a Fran Dunphy team. They play with great spacing, great floor balance, and he obviously is starting to trust some of the guys on his team, the way that some of those guys are starting to play with discipline and aggression offensively.”

PRECOCIOUS – UMass freshman RJ Luis was named the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the week for the first time in his career after averaging 12 points and 6.5 rebounds in the Minutemen’s two games last week.

“RJ is a really good player who's going to be a really good player for us, and he's a great young man,” Frank Martin said. “I’m really happy for him because he works. He cares. And he's got a chance to grow into a dynamic basketball player here.”

Luis scored from the moment he stepped on campus but has honed his defensive game as he’s learned more of Martin’s systems.

“Coach Frank's really hard on defending, and stuff like that's not hard but it's little tactics and little schemes that we do,” Luis said. “I'm still getting used to it.”

WAIT AND SEE – UMass center Wildens Leveque, who missed the past three games and played just three minutes against Dartmouth, practiced Sunday and Monday. He was resting to help combat knee tendonitis, but his body reacted well enough after Sunday to give him a full run Monday. If it continues to handle the workload well, he’ll play Wednesday against La Salle.

HOME COOKING – The Minutemen won’t have to travel at all this week with both league games at the Mullins Center. La Salle visits Wednesday, then the Minutemen host Rhode Island on Saturday (4:30 p.m. NESN-Plus) as part of a doubleheader with the women’s game against Saint Joseph’s (2 p.m.).

“Now we can be consistent with our practice times and maybe that gives us some consistency with how we play,” Frank Martin said.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.]]>