Starting Five: Two Mitchells, a Santos and a Samba

Digging into Saturday’s win over Duquesne

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Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Amin Touri, Editor in Chief

It’s been a while.

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team picked up a big win over Duquesne on Saturday, and with Matt McCall opting to throw out a different starting lineup — and with newly-minted starters Preston Santos and Kolton Mitchell stepping into their new roles quite nicely — there’s a few things to talk about.

Here are five takeaways from the weekend.

1. Preston Santos’ breakout

I wrote a whole column about this on Sunday, but we still probably need to lead with this. Santos was unbelievable on Saturday, putting up 15 points and 12 rebounds on a very efficient 6-of-8 shooting and finding himself at the center of a big stretch in the second half that helped UMass break the game open.

In the second half especially, Santos seemed like he could do no wrong; he was getting inside, hitting threes, grabbing every rebound — we will get to that a little later — and bringing all sorts of energy to a defense that really needed it.

Santos has a slightly confusing offensive profile. He’s not TJ Weeks from outside and he isn’t Samba Diallo getting to the bucket, so what does he do? Well, this, apparently:

via Gfycat

Having seen a lot of Santos’ high school film, I figured he’d be a good finisher at the next level, but he was hitting some layups through contact on Saturday that were a little ridiculous.

via Gfycat

I think it’d be silly to expect Santos to reproduce Saturday’s offensive output on a weekly basis, but it’d be big for UMass to have another secondary scoring option as to take some of the load off of Tre Mitchell and Carl Pierre. He probably won’t put up 15 a night or continue to shoot 46 percent from three — that’s on 13 attempts and does not feel at all sustainable, but he just needs to shoot something close to 35 percent to be effective — but then, he doesn’t need to be, especially if he keeps producing elsewhere.

A lot of Santos’ utility come with his versatility, particularly on defense. His insertion into the starting lineup made a really obvious difference for UMass defensively and there’s a chance he could be a genuine stopper on that end.

It’s impressive that he can stay in front of smaller, quicker guards like he does here:

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And hold his own and alter shots inside like he does here:

via Gfycat

Santos was really good on Saturday. If he can continue to score in small bursts efficiently, play great defense and swallow up rebounds, the starting spot is his to lose. Speaking of rebounds:

2. Santos and Diallo Rebounding Co.

Preston Santos and Samba Diallo combined for 25 rebounds on Saturday. Twenty-five! They were at the center of a 52-rebound night for UMass as a whole, a ridiculous number for a team averaging 32 per game coming in and a program-high since 2009.

Santos and Diallo are 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7 respectively; regular-sized wings, not some behemoth big men. But on the strength of sheer athleticism, and what I am convinced are very small trampolines in the soles of their shoes, they manage to sky for rebound after rebound — Santos picked up a couple by just jumping over people taller than him:

via Gfycat

Diallo, meanwhile, both jumps over and just sort of bullies people out of boards.

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Diallo’s rebounding has especially gone to another level this season, a lot of which might simply have to do with being at full health having battled recurring knee issues throughout last season. He’s doubled his rebounding numbers from 3.3 per game last season to 6.6 per game this year — that number has shot up to 8.9 rebounds per game in conference play, sixth in the Atlantic 10.

Rebounding has been a huge problem for the Minutemen this season, with a rebounding differential of -4.5 this season, a number that was even worse before Saturday’s big afternoon on the glass.

Santos mentioned after Saturday’s game that Diallo had been a big part of the freshman’s improvement in that department.

“Samba’s been making me get better at rebounding,” Santos said. “Obviously I’m known as a rebounder, but being able to grab it and finish, grab it with contact and come down with it without losing it, that’s all because of him. Coming in at full speed, he would knock me down, I would get right back up and go right at him again, so that’s all thanks to him.”

3. Starting Five? Starting Five.

Matt McCall went with a new starting five on Saturday, rolling with K. Mitchell, Pierre, Santos, Diallo and T. Mitchell to open the game, and man did that pay off. The difference defensively was clear from the start; UMass held Duquesne to 64 points — that number was just 53 with 90 seconds to play before the Dukes poured in 11 in garbage time — and a lot of that seemed to come from the insertion of K. Mitchell and Santos, two of the Minutemen’s best defenders.

It wasn’t super tough to guess that Saturday’s lineup would be an improvement defensively, but I was a little surprised at how well it flowed offensively. K. Mitchell is not much of an offensive option but made a few really smart passes, Pierre drew his usual attention and got good looks (but just had a cold night), Diallo got to the line over and over and T. Mitchell was especially dominant inside.

I especially loved this sequence that I tweeted during the game: entry passes to T. Mitchell have been a problem, but Santos throws him a nice one; T. Mitchell has had some issues passing out of double teams but throws a perfect pass; K. Mitchell draws a defender and finds Pierre for an open look at the top of the key, which might be the one shot UMass will take over any other. Pierre struggled on Saturday and he missed this one, but that shot is exactly what the Minutemen want — that led to another positive anyway, as Santos skies in for an offensive rebound and a putback, exactly what McCall wants out of him.

There were a few good sequences, including this one that led to an open three for Diallo, then an alley-oop to the Senegal native after an offensive rebound.

By my math, that particular starting five played 15 minutes and 17 seconds together — they outscored Duquesne 28-14 in that span. As far as I’m concerned, as big a Sean East fan as I may be, it’s got to be the starting five moving forward.

4. I just took it left like I’m ambidex’/[Boy], I move through London with the Eurostep

Imagine if at any point in the last two years, with UMass cycling through a big man rotation of Malik Hines, Rashaan Holloway, Djery Baptiste and Khalea Turner-Morris, I were to show you a video of a UMass big man pump faking at the top of the key, getting inside with a dribble drive and breaking out a euro-step to finish at the rim.

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Mitchell is now tied for second in the A-10 in scoring in conference play at 19.3 points a game with reigning A-10 Player of the Year Jon Axel Gudmundsson and just three tenths of a point behind presumptive A-10 Player of the Year and likely NBA draft pick Obi Toppin. Just something to think about.

5. The misadventures of Samba Diallo, part two

I hope to make this a running series because Samba Diallo never runs out of ways to amuse me. Let’s recap his last few weeks, shall we?

On Saturday, he came up with a big steal for a breakaway and proceeded to do this:

Against GW, he grabbed a rebound with one hand and picked Sean East up off the floor with the other while the ball was still in his hands, which I unfortunately do not have a clip of but he’s done it multiple times and it always makes me laugh.

Finally, a few weeks ago at Akron, he took the mop from the kid working the game and just mopped the floor himself.

There’s only one Samba Diallo.

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