UMass basketball defense has slipped to start A10 play

By KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer

Published: 01-12-2023 6:49 PM

Maybe like many college students, the UMass men’s basketball team lost its home over holiday break.

The Minutemen allowed just 65.7 points per game in 12 games before the 11-day hiatus after non conference play. Only two opponents cracked 70 points, and one broke 80, as UMass started 9-3.

Since returning and beginning Atlantic 10 play, the Minutemen are 1-3 and allowing 80.75 points per game. The first three league opponents (St. Bonaventure, Saint Louis and George Washington) cracked 80, and La Salle finished a field goal under Wednesday.

“It starts with self accountability. I haven’t liked our disposition since we got back from Christmas,” UMass coach Frank Martin said. “We got good dudes. I don’t mean I dislike them. But we’ve had too much negative body language.”

UMass (10-6, 1-3 A-10) has lost consecutive games for the first time all season with a date against Rhode Island on the horizon Saturday (4:30 p.m. NESN+). The Minutemen played much of the final stretch before the break without point guard Noah Fernandes and were without center Wildens Leveque for three games while he recovered from knee tendinitis. He played jus three minutes against Dartmouth on Dec. 20 then returned against the Explorers off the bench.

“If you want to be good defensively, it’s like every other sport. You’ve got to be good up the middle. You’ve got be good at point guard and center. If you’re not good at those two spots, your team has very little chance to be not just good, but competitive and connected. You’re not going to be very good defensively,” Martin said. “We’ve got to get them playing back to where they were at before and everyone else has to get back to playing with a little confidence and a little aggression, which we did pre-December. That’s a challenge right now.”

Both Fernandes and Leveque embrace that challenge. Fernandes is Martin’s go-to defender for the opponent’s best guard. Leveque excels at protecting the rim and in help defense, both being in the right position and communicating with his teammates. The South Carolina transfer played 20 minutes off the bench against La Salle and grabbed five rebounds with a block.

“I’ve taken huge responsibility. I love playing defense and having my guys involved and us taking pride in playing defense,” Leveque said. “It’s a huge thing to win games and win championships. That’s a mentality I’m blessed with, so I’m going to take pride in it.”

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But it can’t just be Leveque. Or Leveque and Fernandes for that matter. Martin’s scheme requires five players working in concert and sacrificing for each other.

“We’re not as together as we once were,” UMass freshman RJ Luis said. “We’ve got to keep working and sticking to our principles and listening to coach.”

Rhode Island (6-10, 2-2) provides the first opportunity. The Rams, under first-year coach Archie Miller, have lost three of their past four games and went to overtime twice, including a defeat against the Explorers.

They score the fewest points in the league (67.4) and have the lowest field goal percentage (39.9).

Rhode Island does grab the second most rebounds (39.4) and offensive rebounds (13.3) per game in the A-10.

“That’s a team that lost some games earlier. They’ve dealt with adversity, so now those guys have realized like, ‘I got to pay attention to what the new coach is saying. Because if I don’t, we’re not going to win games,’ and he definitely has your attention,” Martin said. “They dealt with adversity and now they’ve taken step forward with how they play. You’re starting to see a team that plays more to his personality and his demeanor.”

Martin hopes his team learns the same lesson quickly. The Minutemen played like a Frank Martin team for the first few months of the season. Then they went on break and lost touch.

“When you’re going through it for the first time, it tends to create confusion. When you’re confused, you can’t think straight, you can’t see straight, so it’s hard to act the right way,” Martin said. “We’re dealing with that right now, so we can we can learn from each other and grow from one another.”

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