After years of moving around, Matt Cross has found a home at UMass; and the Minutemen have found their leader

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 02-02-2024 5:48 PM

As Matt Cross woke up each day during the offseason, it felt like another teammate was heading for the exit. The UMass men’s basketball team lost eight of its final 10 games – including a 33-point blowout to Richmond in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament – to finish the year 15-16 overall. One after another, Minutemen players dipped from the program.

Cross had just wrapped up his third collegiate season on as many teams, and with everything seemingly falling apart around him, nobody would’ve questioned if he had once again decided to try his luck elsewhere and add to the pile of eight players transferring out of Amherst.

But that thought never traveled through the Beverly native’s mind.

Cross was exactly where he wanted to be.

“I learned through the process of being in college for a while that the grass isn’t always greener,” Cross said during practice earlier this week. “And I finally felt like I was playing for someone that understood me and gave me a chance.”

That someone was Frank Martin, the second-year head coach of the Minutemen who has been coaching basketball for nearly four decades.

Historically speaking, Martin doesn’t ask much of his players – all we wants is for them to leave everything they have on the floor each night.

Enter Cross.

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Growing up as the youngest sibling in a Massachusetts home, and having a brother five years older than him, Cross knew tough before he even sniffed a basketball. Whether it was physically or mentally, or even when playing video games, his older brother Nick was always roughing him up.

Cross described his resolve as “that Massachusetts blue-collar work ethic,” and it’s translated seamlessly to the hardwood – which is where he now takes orders from Martin. The same determination Cross possesses, Martin worships, and the two have built an impenetrable relationship because of it.

“His whole personality and the way he wants to play fits my play style perfectly. He’s all about toughness,” Cross said of his coach. “I didn’t look too much into who was staying and who was going. I just knew I wanted to play for Frank. I have his back forever, whether I’m here or not, throughout my life and down the line. He’s family to me.”

So Cross watched as lockers emptied around him in the spring, but he didn’t care. Any hard feelings he had were swiftly swept by the summer wind once a new group of freshmen arrived. He immediately saw how competitive they were, as arguments and scuffles broke out during pickup sessions. It brought them all closer. The passion they shared quickly became something to bond over rather than fight over.

With only three scholarship guys back and a new group of 10 incoming players, the senior leader and most experienced collegiate player on the team had no choice but to guide by example.

And as UMass sits at 13-7 overall and fifth in the Atlantic 10 ahead of Saturday’s noon tip with George Mason, Cross’ grit has been on full display through 20 games – and the rest of the roster has followed suit.

“That’s why our team has a chance,” Martin said of Cross earlier this season. “When your best player is so committed to the way we’re trying to build this program [everyone else is too]. That’s why our team has a chance.”

Cross tallied 15 points and 10 rebounds in the Atlantic 10 opener against Duquesne on Jan. 3, and all signs pointed toward the Preseason All-Conference Third Team selection having a standout year in the conference. He hoped it would make up for the sickness-ridden latter half of last year where he lost 25 pounds due to pneumonia.

The Minutemen traveled to Dayton that following weekend looking to flip the conference on its head by beating two of the favorites to win the league in back-to-back games. But misfortune struck Cross one more time.

Not even five minutes in, Cross caught an elbow to the mouth and part of his tooth went flying.

At the next timeout, he realized what had transpired.

“I didn’t know at first until [assistant] Coach [Brian] Steele had my tooth at the media timeout,” Cross said. “[Trainer] Dave [Maclutsky] was like, ‘Let me see your tooth,’ but I just thought he was cleaning up the blood. Then Steele came over and was like, ‘I got his tooth, Dave.’ I put my tongue there and that’s when I felt the hole.”

Naturally, he played the rest of the game without batting an eye. Cross suited up for the next game against La Salle where he re-rolled his left ankle – something he said “just keeps rolling nonstop” – and left late in the second half.

He sat the next three games while rehabbing the ankle and trying to find a place that would perform oral surgery on his tooth as soon as possible. Cross and the Minutemen staff thought it was just a regular tooth chip, meaning he could go in and get a root canal trouble-free.

The orthodontist, however, told him the tooth split all the way up through the root and into his jawline. He had to undergo a surgery that would extract his whole tooth from the nerve and insert a metal plate into his jawline. Now, he needs to let that area heal. In three months, Cross will have it put back in permanently, but at the moment he’s playing without one of his two front teeth.

His first game back in the starting lineup? A team-high 19 points, five rebounds, team-high five assists and two steals in an 84-73 win over Saint Louis last weekend. He’s second on the team with 15.9 points and first on the team with 8.2 rebounds per game this season.

Pneumonia a season ago, oral surgery and several tweaked ankles this year, but it doesn’t matter. Cross continues to overcome adversity and empty his gas tank on a nightly basis. Sounds like a program cornerstone if there ever was one.

“He plays with toughness and plays with skill,” Martin said. “Some guys play with skill but want nothing to do with toughness. He plays with both… He continues to grow and take on challenges. It’s fun to coach him. Like I’ve said 100 times, I’m glad he’s on my team.”

For the first time since his freshman year of high school, Matt Cross has played consecutive seasons with the same team. The constant moving around at a young age has helped him appreciate Massachusetts for what it is: a home in more ways than one.

“I think a lot of the moving and going through those failures early helped prepare me for later in life,” Cross said. “It’s been worth it because I’ve finally built a foundation at a place I feel like I can start to call home.”