UMass basketball: Four Minutemen earn all-Atlantic 10 honors, including first team selections for Josh Cohen and Matt Cross

Josh Cohen was one of two UMass basketball players to earn a First-Team All-Atlantic 10 selection on Tuesday along with Matt Cross.

Josh Cohen was one of two UMass basketball players to earn a First-Team All-Atlantic 10 selection on Tuesday along with Matt Cross. PHOTO BY CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-12-2024 5:49 PM

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Four UMass men’s basketball players picked up Atlantic 10 Conference regular season awards, the league announced on Tuesday morning before the start of the conference tournament.

Matt Cross and Josh Cohen picked up First Team All-Conference honors, Rahsool Diggins earned the Atlantic 10’s Most Improved Player of the Year (co-award with Richmond’s Dji Bailey) and Jaylen Curry grabbed a spot on the First Team All-Rookie squad to round out the Minutemen’s hardware.

UMass was the only team with two players selected to the conference’s first team, and Cross and Cohen became the first pair of Minutemen teammates to nab the honor since 2006-07 (Rashaun Freeman and Stephane Lasme). Dayton’s DaRon Holmes II and Richmond’s Jordan King were tabbed as Co-Players of the Year, and joined Cohen and Cross on the first team along with VCU’s Max Shulga and Saint Joseph’s Erik Reynolds II. Richmond’s Chris Mooney was voted as the Coach of the Year.

“It’s the way it works. Your team lines up and plays to win games, and guys don’t play for individuality,” UMass head coach Frank Martin said. “When your team is able to have a good season and achieve things that haven’t been achieved for awhile, your players individually get respected and celebrated and that’s the way it should be.”

After beginning the season on the conference’s preseason third team, Cross vaulted to the first team with strong 15.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game averages in 27 games. The senior wrapped up his regular season with 15 points and nine rebounds against Fordham on March 6.

“Matt’s got no, ‘Let me step back or out of the way,’ in him,” Martin said. “He is, ‘Full throttle ahead and we’re going forward, I don’t care what’s in front of us.’”

As for Cohen, he helped turn the UMass program around the second he stepped foot in Amherst. Martin noted from the very beginning that Cohen has bought in 100 percent to UMass and the community – and it showed with how he performed on the court. The Saint Francis transfer – where he won Northeast Conference Player of the Year last year – put up 16 points and seven rebounds per game, roaming the interior on both ends of the floor.

“Josh, to be player of the year in another league and to believe in me and come into a different league, into a place that hadn’t won and to invest, is great,” Martin said.

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Perhaps the team’s hardest worker saw all of his effort pay off on Tuesday morning. Throughout the year, Martin said nobody worked harder on his game than Diggins – and that was evident with the Most Improved Player award. His points-per-game average jumped from 4.7 to 12.6 this year, and his shooting splits increased six percent from the field (34 to 40) and seven percent from downtown (29 to 36).

“Rahsool, I’ve spoken all year about how hard he’s worked to put himself in a place where he can re-kindle that fire that, and find that joy in competing,” Martin said. “And to be celebrated in a league that’s got a lot of good guards, as most improved player, says a lot about him.”

Bringing in seven freshmen over the summer and an eighth in the middle of the season, it was obvious that at least a few of them would have to step up for UMass to be any good.

Enter Curry.

The Charlotte native has become one of the most important bench pieces in the Atlantic 10, with his 7.6 points and 2.1 assists per game bringing a spark as the team’s sixth man. Curry had a stretch during league play where he scored 12-plus points in five of six contests – highlighted by a career-high 18 points at Loyola Chicago.

“Jaylen is a good player, and for whatever reason, at a young age, he dealt with all of a sudden not being recruited the way people thought he should be,” Martin said. “For him to believe in us and come from Charlotte all the way up here and accept coaching, [he’s deserved this].”

Martin wasn’t in the least bit surprised by the recognition his team earned on Tuesday morning. The habits they worked so hard to establish as a group were recognized individually – the exact way it should be.

“The best part about all four of these guys is they let me coach them,” Martin said. “Like I told the team after practice, when only one player gets celebrated at the end of the year, usually it means that team wasn’t very good and somebody had really good stats. When multiple players get celebrated, it’s because your team was good. And in team sports, that’s what it’s all about.”