Designated Hitter: A chicken-or-egg question for UMass basketball

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SPRINGFIELD — It is the great chicken-or-egg question.

Should fans come out to support a team and then the team will win? Or, should the team win so fans come out?

That conundrum is what faces University of Massachusetts basketball fans in coach Matt McCall's first year.

The former Chattanooga head coach told me that the latter is what is the most important thing.

"You've got to have success to get people excited," McCall said, after his Minutemen finished up a public event at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Thursday.

There were a number of fans who made the trek through the I-91 construction site to watch a 3-point shot competition with the women's team and a dunk contest.

The Minutemen were 15-18 last year and an extraordinarily disappointing 4-14 in Atlantic 10 conference games.

"One, it starts with energy. It starts with engagement, but the most important thing is you've got to win," McCall said. "You've got to put a product out there on the floor that people want to go see. You've got to put an environment in the arena that's fun — that they want to come to games for."

Winning might be tough off the bat for UMass. Rashaan Holloway isn't practicing due to a thumb injury and freshman big man Khalea Turner-Morris is out with a back issue. Neither is a season-ending injury.

But when you're coaching a team that suffered through a number of transfers — both of graduate and returning players — the early part of the season could be a struggle.

It won't be that long now before McCall's Minutemen will take the court for real. That date is Nov. 10, when Pat Duquette's UMass Lowell team visits the Mullins Center.

The Minutemen were picked to finish 12th in a 14-team Atlantic 10. Rhode Island was a near-unanimous choice as the conference's No. 1 team.

The only teams listed below UMass were Fordham and Duquesne.

In addition, no UMass players were named to any of the three All-Conference teams or the All-Defensive team, so there's that.

The good news, if you are a glass-being-half-full person, is that Holloway and guard Luwane Pipkins were two of last year's top scorers, and both are back. They started the most games last year.

The loss of guard Jaylen Brantley, a graduate transfer from Maryland, has to hurt. But when Holloway gets back into the lineup, along with Pipkins and senior swingman C.J. Anderson, the Minutemen won't have a bad foundation. It's going to be up to some young players to develop, and quickly, if the Minutemen are going to go over .500.

"We've got a long way to go," McCall said. "It starts with us getting healthy and having all of our bodies out there. There are enough. If you can get five guys connected out on the floor and playing the game the right way, and playing to our identity.

"If you come to practice, you'll hear me talk about our identity. We're going to be unselfish. We're going to be an extremely loud talking team on defense," he said. "We're going to push the ball up the floor.

"We've got to play to our identity to give ourselves a chance."

That chance starts in three weeks.

Reach sports columnist Howard Herman at 413-496-6253, hherman@berkshireeagle.com, or @howardherman.


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