UMass basketball: Josh Cohen, Minutemen rout Albany in season-opening win
Published: 11-07-2023 11:00 PM
Modified: 11-07-2023 10:59 PM
AMHERST — Josh Cohen’s second three-pointer of the night splashed through the hoop to put the UMass men’s basketball team ahead by 28 points midway through the second half. He turned and smiled while nodding his head, holding three fingers up in the air knowing he had everything working in his Minutemen debut.
The bucket – his last of the contest – gave Cohen 22 points on the night, and the Saint Francis transfer added eight rebounds and three steals in only 19 minutes of action to lead UMass to a 92-71 win over Albany in the season opener at the Mullins Center on Tuesday night.
Cohen was expected to take on a big role immediately. Well, the 6-foot-10 senior lived up to his lofty off-season expectations.
“It felt good, and being 1-0, I haven’t been 1-0 in awhile,” Cohen said. “Getting a win at home in my first game is awesome.”
UMass head coach Frank Martin rolled out a starting lineup of Keon Thompson, Rahsool Diggins, Jayden Ndjigue, Matt Cross, and Cohen. The unit was relentless on the defensive end, which sparked easy looks in transition. UMass got out to an early 12-0 lead and went into the break ahead 46-26. At the under-eight media timeout, the Minutemen starting five was plus 22 on the floor together.
“Guys that figure out a way to stick with me get better,” Martin said. “They work at it, and Rahsool, Keon, and Matt, those guys are better players. They’re in a much better space than they were a year ago… At the end of the day, it’s about winning, and [the starters] created that personality.”
Martin had said that Thompson was much improved from last year, and he was right. Thompson played slow and under control, but carved out driving lanes being quick and aggressive at the same time. He picked and chose his spots and got to the cup at will – looking nothing like his freshman self who oftentimes was overwhelmed. Thompson finished with 13 points, six assists, five rebounds. He didn’t commit a single turnover and was the best guard on the floor Tuesday night.
“That’s why I coach… I coach to see kids like Keon,” Martin said of his vast improvements. “He could’ve left… and he said no. He said, ‘Frank’s my guy, and I came here to help.’ That’s why I coach – to watch young people grow. I’m sure he’s gonna drive me nuts, but as you can see, I didn’t yell at him too much today.”
UMass attempted 20 more shots than Albany in the game. A lot of it had to do with the Minutemen grabbing five more offensive rebounds than the Great Danes, but most of it correlated to them turning the ball over only five times – 13 less than Albany leading to a 21-0 points off turnovers differential.
UMass’ first turnover came on a Cross travel. Three of the five Minutemen turnovers were dead-ball turnovers, ones that allow them to get back to set up their defense – ones that coaches can live with.
“Albany is really aggressive defensively,” Martin said. “We took some bad shots. [Keon and Rahsool] did a really good job of making sure we took good shots. They’re in a great space mentally, they’re connected to me, they’re connected to our team, they help their teammates, and they’re aggressive as heck.”
Typical Frank Martin teams are known for their defensive identity. UMass struggled to develop a cohesive rhythm on that end of the floor last season due to injuries and a lack of communication. Martin saw the complete opposite of that on Tuesday night.
The Minutemen’s rotations and close outs were quick, help defense was on time, and almost every shot was contested or altered because of it.
“If you defend, you get freedom on the other end, and we just wanna run up and down,” Diggins said. “We don’t wanna run sets, we don’t have too many plays this year. The way we guard, if you don’t play defense intensely, we would be a bad team.”
“A lot of our offense was obviously created by defense tonight,” Cohen added. “Guys were up in the lane, and we’re not gonna let teams just dribble the ball up at whatever pace they want. We’re gonna control the pace.”
Daniel Hankins-Sanford proved he’s fully recovered from his lower leg injury suffered earlier this pre-season, as the sophomore put up 14 points, three rebounds, three assists, and three blocks. Diggins showed signs he can be leaned on with 14 points on an efficient 5-for-10 shooting including 50 percent from behind the arc.
The scariest part of Tuesday night’s win is that Cross – an Atlantic 10 Preseason Third Team selection – only shot five times (good for eight points), and UMass still won by 21 points. When the Minutemen get him going, this team is going to be that much harder to stop offensively.
“Matt in the first half, I think he had two points,” Martin said. “But he was plus-26. I’m not a big plus/minus guy, but that’s a guy that’s impacting the game in a positive way.”
UMass (1-0) returns to action Monday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. against Quinnipiac.