UMass basketball: Minutemen return after lengthy break to host South Florida

UMass forward Matt Cross (33), right, drives against CCSU forward Allan Jeanne-Rose (12) in the first half last week at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass forward Matt Cross (33), right, drives against CCSU forward Allan Jeanne-Rose (12) in the first half last week at the Mullins Center in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 12-01-2023 5:34 PM

Modified: 12-01-2023 6:49 PM


AMHERST — UMass men’s basketball head coach Frank Martin had never gone as many days in between games as he did over the past week and a half.

Saturday afternoon’s matchup with South Florida (2-3) stands as the Minutemen’s first game in 10 days, and given the youth of his group, Martin admitted he was a little worried about the re-acclimation process after such a long break. But from what he saw this week in practice, those concerns were put to rest.

“Once the games start, you practice to prepare and get better so you can win the next game, and it’s been such a long time since the last time we played,” Martin said. “But they’ve been good. This team, I give them credit. Knock on wood, I hope it continues. They come in every day, they respond to coaching, they’re excited about competing and about trying to find a way to help us win.”

Ten of UMass’ first 11 games this season are at home (that includes a neutral site game with West Virginia in Springfield, where the Minutemen are the designated home team), and the contest against the Bulls is the fifth in a row at the Mullins Center.

During the 2022-23 season, it felt like UMass (3-1) spent the year on a plane or a bus. While there are lessons to be learned with facing early road tests, having the comfort of home-court advantage has been important, and it’s offered the Minutemen – a team with seven freshmen – a chance to settle in without the distractions of a hostile environment.

“Last year we were on the road the whole time, and I thought it made us grow, but then we hit adversity and we fell apart,” Martin said. “I don’t know if there’s a perfect science for that. I think you have to expose your team for true road games, because whether we like it or not, we’re gonna go play at St. Bonaventure, and at La Salle, and at certain schools in the league. We gotta be prepared for how to handle that environment... [We have] mostly home games this year. With such a young team I think I’d rather play at home.”

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Bulls head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim is in his first year down in the Sunshine State. He took the job after leading Kennesaw State to the big dance last season, winning an Atlantic Sun Conference title. The Owls took No. 3 Xavier to the brink in the first round, losing 72-67, and won 26 games overall. 

Abdur-Rahim brought three players from Kennesaw State with him, including star point guard Chris Youngblood, who leads South Florida with 14 points per game so far this season. Also following Abdur-Rahim from the Owls to the Bulls were seniors Kasen Jennings and Brandon Stroud.

“I think Amir is one of the young stars in this business,” Martin said. “I think he’s got a great way about him, he’s about all the right things. There’s a reason Kennesaw State won at the level they won at with him there for the first time ever as a university. I think he’ll be great for South Florida.”

The most obvious difference between the two teams is the average age of the players in their rotations. Abdur-Rahim plays 10 players at least 12 minutes, with eight of them being a junior or senior. As for Martin and the Minutemen, only three of the nine players who see the floor for more than 10 minutes a night are upperclassmen. 

Kobe Knox played in 34 games last year at Grand Canyon, starting point guard Jose Placer averaged 14 points per game or more for three straight years at North Florida, and Youngblood has averaged double digits in each of his four seasons as a college hooper including 2023. From top to bottom, South Florida has proven Division 1 talent.

“They’re old, that’s the best way I can describe them,” Martin said. “They’ve got a lot of 6-foot-5 guys that all play aggressive, downhill off the dribble. They’re established college players. The kid Knox, established player at Grand Canyon. Youngblood, Stroud, and Jennings all played for [Abdur-Rahim] at Kennesaw State, they’re all seniors… Placer, he’s a four-year starter that averaged 15 points a game at North Florida.”

This South Florida team is clearly experienced, certainly more so than UMass. But if there’s an area of the Bulls that the Minutemen can exploit, it’s at the big position. Two of the top four rebounders on the team are guards, and the top five scorers are all guards.

Saturday should be yet another chance for Josh Cohen and Matt Cross to dominate down low, just as they did in UMass’ last game against Central Connecticut State University before the Thanksgiving break. The Minutemem probably feel like they have a front-court advantage in most games with Cohen and Cross, but they should especially be able to control the paint against South Florida.

“I think [Abdur-Rahim] is trying to figure out the center spot,” Martin said. “I’m speaking for him, which is never an intelligent thing to do, but it seems like he’s trying to figure out the center spot right now and he’s pretty comfortable with all the other spots.”

In order for UMass to fully utilize that advantage, it will need its guards to be ready for the long, versatile perimeter players that South Florida has on its roster. The Bulls have a handful of players on Abdur-Rahim’s team that are 6-foot-5 and above and play significant minutes – which is very similar to the personnel of Harvard. And against the Crimson, the Minutemen struggled to find clean passing windows to get the ball down low. A lot of their baskets inside came off dribble penetration, not Cohen or Cross post-ups.

South Florida poses that same threat, so a lot weighs on Keon Thompson, Rahsool Diggins, and the rest of the backcourt to handle the Bulls’ defensive aggression appropriately.

“To dominate down low, you need your guards to play right,” Martin said. “The challenges that they’re gonna present to us is similar to what Harvard presented us... South Florida doesn’t have that rim coverage that Harvard had, but that size on the perimeter negates some of the post-entries. Can we handle that better than we did against Harvard so we’re not limited to just playing off the bounce? That’s the challenge. I think we’ve grown in that department. We’ll find out Saturday if we handle it better.”