Starting Five: Sean East’s puppeteering, Preston Santos’ energy and more

Jumping into some film on the 4-0 Minutemen

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Starting Five: Sean East’s puppeteering, Preston Santos’ energy and more

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Amin Touri, Editor in Chief

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Another week, another five things to talk about. The Massachusetts men’s basketball team is now 4-0 after a 46-point hammering of Central Connecticut State on Saturday, which followed wins over Northeastern and Fairfield.

There’s plenty to parse through in the film, but we’ll still stay fairly big picture this early in the season.

1. Sean East, puppetmaster

I promise this column isn’t going to be the Sean East show every week, but he continues to be so impressive, picking up an A-10 Rookie of the Week award on Monday for his recent exploits. Through four games, East is averaging 14.3 points, 6.5 assists and 2.5 rebounds per game, the first two of which lead the team, while shooting 66 percent from the field and 62.5 percent from three (small sample size and those shooting percentages will come back down to earth, but still) and turning the ball over just five times. All the while, he’s looked perfectly comfortable running the offense while leading the team in minutes.

There’s a million things I could run through with East here, from the full-court shot he hit against Northeastern — which, holy hell — to his much-improved defense, the latter of which I’ll cover at some point, but I want to focus a bit on his playmaking.

East is obviously a good passer. That’s really easy to see. But vision and passing are only part of the equation; what really sets great playmakers apart is the ability to read and manipulate the defense.

Here’s an example: East and Tre Mitchell have run a lot of this little pick-and-pop action on the left wing, where Mitchell sets a high ball screen and stays at the edge of the 3-point line instead of slipping or rolling to the rim. When teams decide to hedge, like Northeastern does here, East takes one dribble toward the corner to drag both defenders with him, and flips it back over his shoulder to Mitchell for an open three.

via Gfycat

I could show you a dozen examples of this from the last couple of games. They do it all the time. But the key here is the single dribble East takes — if he takes another, Northeastern’s Tomas Murphy probably pops back out to cover Mitchell. If he doesn’t take that dribble, Murphy never leaves Mitchell so open.

Here’s one from the Fairfield game. If you read the last Starting Five column, this will look familiar. In that one, I used a clip from the opener where East pushed the ball in transition, drove at a defender to drag them away from Carl Pierre, sealed the defender and dumped it to Pierre for an open three. Pierre missed it, but it was a great look.

He did the same thing against Fairfield. TJ Weeks didn’t miss.

via Gfycat

East manages to take two defenders out of the equation by driving and turning his back. It’s subtle, but it’s so smart. A few minutes later, East pushed the ball in transition again. Pierre, yet to hit a shot, was in the corner; by driving hard right at the baseline, East draws the attention of three defenders, and that’s enough space for Pierre to give UMass the lead.

A lot of this stuff is really subtle and at times can seem like nothing, but East’s ability to get a defense moving the way he wants it to, even for a split second, can be the difference between an open look and successful closeout. UMass hasn’t had a point guard like this for some time. Luwane Pipkins could throw a nice pass; he couldn’t manipulate defenses like this.

2. Preston Santos keeps playing his role

Even after putting together the Freshman Film Room episode on Preston Santos, I wasn’t fully sure what he was going to be at this level. In truth, he’s been exactly what UMass needs him to be.

I think it takes exceptional humility to do what Santos has done this season. With Woodstock teammates Mitchell and Weeks quickly establishing themselves as potential stars, Santos has taken a less-celebrated role as an energy guy off the bench, and he’s thrived. His job is simple: play defense, grab some offensive rebounds, make the most of his athleticism. He’s played that role perfectly.

McCall says his goal for Santos is 10 “hustle stats” a game — rebounds, steals, blocks, loose balls, taken charges, etc. Whether he’s hitting that quantitatively, I’m not sure. But he’s contributed in the way he needs to.

The trouble with Santos is that he’s not a huge threat when things slow down in the half court, and since he’s not a great 3-point shooter, he can hurt the team’s spacing. But playing as a stretch four, especially in lineups with East, Weeks, Pierre and Mitchell — who are shooting a combined 47 percent from three — as he is here, that’s fine. As long as he’s playing defense and stealing a couple easy buckets from offensive rebounds as he does here, he’s a net positive.

via Gfycat

There’s so much that he does that doesn’t show up in the box score. This save he makes against Fairfield, going into the bench for a loose ball, was one of the biggest plays of the game. I know that sounds dramatic, but this came in the middle of a 13-2 run that pulled UMass back into the game, and the extra basket he generates with his effort was a big part of the momentum swing in the second half of that game.

via Gfycat

Plus, he can do some fun things occasionally. This sequence against Central Connecticut State is the perfect Preston Santos offensive possession: an offensive rebound, and some athleticism for a bucket inside.

via Gfycat

Santos isn’t going to average double figures or win any awards this season, but he’s going to make a difference every night.

3. Tre Mitchell vs. all the double teams

Tre Mitchell finished with five points against CCSU, which really doesn’t matter with UMass winning by 46 anyway, but without a big scoring day, he showed off some of the other abilities that are going to make him successful even on off nights.

Teams have been relentlessly doubling Mitchell early, and he struggled to deal with that against UMass Lowell and Northeastern especially, finishing 3-of-11 against the River Hawks and turning it over four times against the Huskies. But as he gets used to that attention, if he can keep making passes like he does to Clergeot here, teams are going to have to ease off with their double teams.

CCSU did not learn its lesson. Watch the Blue Devils’ No. 10 here, who’s so worried about helping on Mitchell that he leaves TJ Weeks — he of 53 percent shooting from three — wide open, and Mitchell makes him pay.

I might do a whole column just about the difficulties of defending Mitchell, because it’s such a pick-your-poison dilemma. Double him, and he’s got the vision to find an open shooter. Leave him man-to-man in the post, and he’ll kill you. Sag off him on the perimeter, and he’s shooting 38 percent from deep. Play him tight, and he’ll blow by you.

That’s a nightmare, and if Mitchell continues to improve as a passer to kill double teams, he’ll be close to unguardable.

4. Djery Baptiste’s rim protection

Djery Baptiste is a very nice person. Djery Baptiste has been really rude this season.

That’s just mean. I do not envy anyone who drives down the lane and has to stare that man down. I mean, good luck with this:

If we’re being honest about it, Baptiste is never going to have Tre Mitchell’s polish down low offensively, he’s never going to space the floor and shoot from outside. Offensively, his value is mostly as a screener and as an offensive rebounder. But he’s slowly becoming one of the A-10’s better rim protectors — he’s so long, his instincts are great on that end, he rarely bites on a pump fake and he’s strong enough to hang in with anyone.

Arguably, the most impressive thing is his ability to step out and defend smaller players if he’s forced to switch on the perimeter. If he can continue to do that, he’ll provide really valuable minutes when Mitchell is on the bench, as a defensive stopper in lineups with shooters to balance him out offensively.

5. Samba Diallo’s fluctuating interest levels

I told myself I wasn’t going to do a whole thing on the Sean East full-court buzzer-beater because it’s been replayed to death with the No. 1 spot on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays and all, but I just want you to watch the clip again and just focus on Samba Diallo.

via Gfycat

He literally doesn’t react. East just hit one of the wildest shots Mullins has seen in decades, and he has zero reaction. He’s completely unbothered. His stride doesn’t even change.

I think Samba is the funniest person on this team, largely because of stuff like this. His interest level in different things makes no sense. He once peppered me with questions about journalism and writing for 15 minutes while I hung around a lift for a story like it was the most interesting thing in the world. It absolutely isn’t. Sean East drills one from Hadley, and he’s like, “Oh, cool.” What a guy.

Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.