Touri: Preston Santos and Kolton Mitchell seized their opportunity on Saturday

Freshmen come up big in first starts

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Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Amin Touri, Editor in Chief

Within the first five and a half minutes of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s win over Duquesne on Saturday, Preston Santos had already grabbed four rebounds, two offensive and two defensive, snagged a loose ball and picked up Dukes star Sincere Carry full-court nearly every possession; Kolton Mitchell, meanwhile, had an offensive rebound of his own, a loose ball recovery of his own, an assist and picked up Carry in the half-court once Santos was done bothering the Duquesne point guard.

Santos and Mitchell, both starting for the first time on Saturday, immediately injected an energy level that UMass (8-12, 2-5 Atlantic 10) has been missing for so long. You could see their impact in the first few minutes, especially defensively — the Minutemen were flying around again, rotating quickly, guarding the ball and making the sort of hustle plays that had become a rarity.

It’s like Matt McCall said: “It felt like one of the first five games.”

Santos is going to get a lot of the press from Saturday’s win, and rightfully so. Having never totaled more than seven points or more than four rebounds this season, Santos’ star turn came on Saturday with a 15-point, 12-rebound double-double that included an unbelievable second half stretch in which he scored seven straight points for the Minutemen to help UMass break the game open when things were still tight.

Santos seemed to be in one of those zones where a guy can do no wrong; grabbing every rebound, coming up with big steals, getting to the rim and finishing time after time; he even hit a huge three to push the lead to 10 when UMass was 2-of-22 from deep to that point.

It was clear from the start of the year what his role was going to be: energy, defense and rebounding. McCall always talked about the goal for Santos being 10 hustle stats a game — loose balls, steals, rebounds — and he did that on Saturday, but he also threw in an efficient scoring performance when the Minutemen needed it, with Carl Pierre struggling from the field.

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

Santos is far from a perfect player, but he did everything UMass needed of him on Saturday and more. The defense looks completely different when he’s on the floor, and his jump-out-of-the-gym vertical makes every rebound fair game; the Minutemen outrebounded Duquesne 52-34, and Santos was a huge part of that.

Mitchell, meanwhile, made his impact a little more quietly. He finished with four points, three rebounds and three assists, a rather pedestrian statline, but you could see his impact out on the floor.

Sean East’s defense has absolutely improved this season, particularly from the way he looked in prep school, but Mitchell is UMass’ best option defensively at point guard. He’s everywhere in the press, he was completely willing to pick up Carry over and over, he puts his body in plays and while he finished without a steal, his disruptive presence was obvious.

Mitchell isn’t the sort of electric scorer and distributor East can be at his best, but with East struggling a bit in recent weeks, Mitchell is exactly the steady presence the Minutemen needed handling the ball. He had one silly turnover late but he was otherwise very solid; three assists don’t do his playmaking justice, as he threw a couple really nice passes to open shooters on a day where UMass just couldn’t hit anything from three.

There’s a decent chance Mitchell won’t ever put up a double-digit scoring night this season — he’s still kind of playing with one hand, his left thumb and wrist are still wrapped up in several layers of tape — and he’s literally only taken seven shots in eight games, but in the right lineups, he makes a lot of sense at point guard. He’s a very good defender, he brings effort and energy, he’s a smart passer and he makes the right play; it sounds simple and perhaps even a little cliché, but it’s a lot of what UMass needs at the moment.

Santos and Mitchell are both somewhat unconventional guys. Santos is not TJ Weeks or Carl Pierre from three (though he is shooting 46 percent from deep on just 13 attempts, and he’s 5-of-6 since mid-December) and Mitchell isn’t going to give you 15 points and 10 assists as a point guard.

But they were given their first chance to start on Saturday and seized their opportunity; they were central to UMass’ biggest win of the season, and they might be exactly what the Minutemen need.

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