Melo: UMass men’s basketball’s defense has been key during current win streak

Minutemen have scored a combined 29 points off of turnovers in win streak

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Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Javier Melo, Assistant Sports Editor

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team is currently on a two-game win streak, picking up wins against Duquesne and Saint Joseph’s. With an Atlantic 10 matchup against Davidson looming, here’s how UMass (9-12, 3-5 A-10) has managed to turn around its defense in order to start winning games again.

The answer isn’t a quick fix by any means and the Minutemen still have many holes to fix, but the insertion of freshmen Kolton Mitchell and Preston Santos has certainly made a difference. Both defensive-minded players, they allow UMass to be able to switch one through five — though they try to keep the five out of switches — and the defensive versatility, combined with size and length on the perimeter, has made UMass a menace to play against.

The Minutemen set the tone early against Duquesne (15-5, 5-3 A-10). From the opening tip, K. Mitchell hounded the lead ballhandler and made reading the passing lanes difficult. Multiple hand-offs ensued, but no scoring opportunities opened up. Eventually, Marcus Weathers ended up with the ball and tried to force a layup over Samba Diallo, which UMass was able to contain.

The next time out on defense, the press was rolled out and while it didn’t stop the Dukes from advancing the ball forward, it certainly slowed them down. From there, Santos got switched onto Sincere Carry, Duquesne’s point guard, and did a great job of maintaining a disruptive presence. When Carry tried passing the ball, Diallo intercepted and UMass was off to the races.

Against Duquesne, UMass was able to contain of defense and not allow many clean looks. The transition defense in particular has looked very good recently. The Minutemen only allowed two fast break points against the Dukes and while UMass coach Matt McCall did not agree with my assessment of the transition defense in the St. Joe’s (4-17, 0-8 A-10) game, they looked pretty good there as well, but were just unlucky with some of their positioning early in the game.

The obvious key to transition defense is effort. A lineup of K. Mitchell, Santos, Carl Pierre, Diallo and Tre Mitchell is going to be one that produces consistent effort on both ends of the court. K. Mitchell has had a couple of forced turnovers in transition, poking the ball out of a steal of forcing it to go out of bounds on the opposing player. The same can be said about Santos, who always plays on full throttle. Santos has been a consistent presence in transition and if it’s not contesting or altering shots or forcing turnovers, he’s blocking a shot and staring down at the opposing player, like he did against the Dukes.

Against St. Joe’s, the transition defense was a step slower. The Minutemen were caught trying to do too much defensively and it led to some easy shots for the Hawks. In the first of those opportunities, Pierre and K. Mitchell were the only two with a shot of getting back in time, K. Mitchell bit on an early front and was forced to recover in a very short amount of time. Pierre went to pressure the ballhandler and it opened a runner free for a layup. However, K. Mitchell was able to recover in time and poke the ball loose and off of Cameron Brown for the turnover.

On other possessions, the Minutemen were caught off guard by their turnovers and weren’t in a position to recover in time in transition. It also doesn’t help when the player that is leading the fast break is Ryan Daly, one of the best players in the entire conference. Whether it was scoring himself or finding a teammate up ahead, Daly was a nightmare to defend early on for UMass.

The offense was not good against Duquesne. The Minutemen only shot 35 percent from the field and a putrid 16.7 percent from three. They only had six points on the fast break and 12 points from the bench. The keys to that game came with the 11 points off of turnovers that they scored and their efficiency at the free throw line, a lot of those opportunities created in the later stage of their transition offense.

Although UMass was floored early on by St. Joe’s, the Minutemen bounced back in a big way. UMass managed to score 18 points off of turnovers and only allowed two fast break points, which came when Daly found a teammate with a great pass ahead in transition. The offense definitely won that game, but the defense came up in a big way and it led the Minutemen to two of the biggest wins they’ve had all season.

With a road trip at Davidson looming, along with the prospects of having to defend reigning A-10 Player of the Year Jon Axel Gudmundsson and All-Conference First Team guard Kellan Grady. Gudmundsson has come alive recently, scoring 20-plus points in each of the Wildcats’ (10-10, 4-4 A-10) last four games. Grady has also been explosive offensively and is coming off of a 28-point performance in a 4OT loss to George Washington.

Defending those two, along with the rest of the team, will be no easy task for UMass. However, with the defensive versatility brought by the starting lineup, and the dynamic defenders that can be brought off the bench like Dibaji Walker and Keon Clergeot, the Minutemen certainly have the horses to be able to do it.

It’s been a long season for UMass, but the defense is finally starting to take shape. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Javier Melo can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @JMeloSports.