The University of Massachusetts could be more than a little shorthanded when the Minutemen hit the court for Saturday night’s Atlantic 10 Conference game with Rhode Island.
“It’s next man up for us,” said freshman forward Ronnie DeGray III, in response to possibly not having star center Tre Mitchell and starting point guard Noah Fernandes good to go.
“We believe that the next guy can help contribute to scoring,” DeGray said on the school’s Zoom call the day before a game. “[Javohn Garcia] and Kolton [Mitchell] and whoever runs point guard for us will step up. It sucks to have Tre and Noah out, but we have full faith in the next person.”
The Minutemen will travel to Kingston for the game against Rhode Island. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Rhode Island (9-10, 6-6 Atlantic 10) enters the game having lost its last two games, at Dayton and home against VCU. The Rams dropped an 80-76 overtime decision to UMass (6-4, 5-2) back on Jan. 13. That win by UMass ended a three-game losing streak to the Rams. Rhody has won five straight inside the Ryan Center.
The Minutemen will enter play far from 100 percent. Mitchell hurt his right shoulder in the Jan. 24 loss to Davidson and did not play against Fordham. The Minutemen also did not have starting guard Noah Fernandes in the 60-54 win Wednesday, because he hurt his right (shooting) wrist in the Davidson game.
“I think it would be difficult to say that Tre plays,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “With where he’s at right now, I think he still has some time before we can put him in in some contact. The biggest thing is with those guys is being able to practice and take on contact. We have to make sure of that before we put them into a game.”
Fernandes, McCall said, is a game-time decision.
Wednesday’s game marked the first game Mitchell had missed in his UMass career. Not only had Mitchell played in 40 consecutive games, but he had made 40 consecutive starts. Fernandes had started in each of the first nine UMass games this season.
With Mitchell and Fernandes out against Fordham, UMass went to a three-guard offense, starting Garcia and T.J. Weeks, and moving Mark Gasperini into the center spot alongside Dibaji Walker in the frontcourt.
”Coach McCall, he opened up a new playbook from the guards standpoint,” Garcia said, “just because with Tre being out right now. We have guard plays that we have been running now. We still look to feed the post.”
Against Fordham, McCall had a deeper bench to call on than he had in recent games. DeGray played 20 minutes in the Fordham game after having been sidelined due to contact tracing for COVID-19, which he did not have. Cairo McCrory played for the first time since the Jan. 9, La Salle game. Dyondre Dominguez, while in uniform, did not get into the Fordham game. He hadn’t played since Jan. 9 either.
While Garcia said that there are new plays installed because Mitchell’s 20.0 points per game will be in sweats on Saturday, McCall said that he isn’t changing everything the Minutemen do.
”How’s the game going? What’s going on in the game? How are we playing? Are we struggling on either side of the ball and do we need to get more offensive-minded because we’re struggling scoring? Do we need to be more defensive-minded because we’re struggling getting stops? Is there foul trouble?” McCall said. “I like our nine guys right now and where they’re at. I think all of them can go into the game and impact the game and have that opportunity.”
Rhode Island may not be at full strength either. Guard Fatts Russell missed the VCU game with an ankle injury, and Russell could be a game-time decision for coach David Cox. Russell had 12 points and five assists in the overtime loss at the Mullins Center.
Guard Jeremy Sheppard, who had seven assists in the UMass game, stepped up in Russell’s absence, as did freshman guard Ishmael Leggett. Leggett, a freshman, had a career-high 17 points in the VCU game.
Without Mitchell, other players had to hit the glass in the Fordham game, and T.J. Weeks was first among them. The redshirt freshman had 13 points and 12 rebounds in the win. It was his first career double-double and the 12 boards were a career-high for him.
This game has a little more buzz because it will be televised on ESPN2. It will mark the first time UMass has been on one of ESPN’s cable channels since Nov. 24, 2019, when the Minutemen played St. John’s on ESPN2 during the Hall of Fame Classic.
“Everybody’s family gets to watch this on national television. I’m sure it gives our guys a little more juice,” McCall said. “How could it not?
And this being a pandemic year for coaches who don’t have to dress to the nines every time out, being on national television in business casual attire works just fine for the UMass coach.
“The best part about is, I don’t have to worry about what I’m wearing. What shirt that matches a tie and matches a jacket. We don’t have to do that. It’s a polo and pants, which is awesome, sneakers that my kids picked out,” McCall said with a smile. “Nobody realizes that my adidas sneakers have Goofy on them. My kids picked those out for me and they think it brings me good luck.”