Touri: Opening up the UMass hoops mailbag

Zone defenses, recruiting buzz, future Chancellors and more

%28Parker+Peters%2FDaily+Collegian%29

(Parker Peters/Daily Collegian)

By Amin Touri, Collegian Staff

With only a few games to go in what’s been one of the most intriguing seasons for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team in recent years, I thought it might be good time for a mailbag column to parse through some of UMass Twitter’s burning questions.

Is going to zone the biggest reason [UMass is] now playing well? @CurryHicksSage/Twitter

Well, yes and no; the zone has definitely been pretty effective in spurts for Matt McCall and co., but I actually think it has more to do with the variance of defensive looks. Having spent most of the season trying to work out the press and dropping back to man-to-man, the Minutemen (12-15, 6-8 Atlantic 10) have suddenly become a little unpredictable.

Take the win over Saint Louis from last week, for example — UMass had to defend 23 half-court possessions in the first half, going zone for 12 of them and man for the other 11, basically an even split. A few possessions were a little hard to diagnose the defense, with the Billikens moving quickly in semi-transition and getting shots off before UMass got set, but that’s the rough math.

The point is that McCall has made a point of switching up defenses on the fly to keep teams off balance, mixing zone and man with a sprinkle of pressing to disrupt offensive flow from time to time. Ahead of the Saint Louis game, the third-year coach said as much.

No. 4 Dayton’s Jalen Crutcher, after his team was held to 71 points at the Mullins Center — the Flyers are averaging over 80 points a game on the year — confirmed that the variance was troublesome.

“It was just their defense kind of confused us a little bit,” Crutcher said. “They were showing zone, going man, man-zone — and it just kind of confused us so we just kind of had to get adjusted.”

The defense overall has been the difference; in its first six conference games, the Minutemen allowed teams an average of 6.3 points per game more than that team’s season average; they started conference play 1-5. In the eight games since, in which span UMass is a much-improved 5-3, that number is now negative 1.95 —opponents almost two points below their season averages scoring-wise — as the Minutemen have gone from a very bad defense to slightly above average one.

First six A-10 games

OpponentPoints allowedTeam's averageDifferentialResult
Saint Louis8371.611.4Loss
La Salle6968.30.7Win
Dayton8880.67.4Loss
Bonnies74695Loss
GW75678Loss
Mason7367.35.7Loss
Total:+38.2
Average differential:+6.37

Last eight A-10 games

OpponentPoints allowedTeam's averageDifferentialResult 
Duquesne6470.8-6.8Win
St. Joe's7668.67.4Win
Davidson8573.211.8Loss
URI7374.7-1.7Loss
Mason6767.3-0.3Win
Dayton7180.6-9.6Loss
Saint Louis6371.6-8.6Win
Fordham4956.8-7.8Win
Total:-15.6
Average differential:-1.95

It seems evident that UMass has made great strides from two months ago. Where can they realistically improve over the final stretch of the season to continue the progression? –Gregory Leger/Twitter

As we’ve established, UMass has gone from a really bad defense to an slightly above average (i.e, good enough) defense; the Minutemen are sixth in the conference in turnover margin, which is fine; their overall scoring is 10th, which isn’t great but also not terrible. To me, the 3-point shooting remains the biggest concern.

With defenses hell-bent on trying to stop Tre Mitchell and the freshman big man having so much success passing out of double teams, the Minutemen get so many good looks from deep; problem is, they can’t hit anything.

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

UMass is dead last in the conference in 3-point percentage at 28.5 percent in A-10 play, with even junior sharpshooter Carl Pierre shooting just 30.6 percent on seven attempts a game. Winnable games have been sunk by bad shooting; against their two best opponents of the season, Rhode Island and Dayton, the Minutemen shot 4-of-19 from deep against the former and 4-of-20 against the latter — they lost by six points and eight points respectively. Those are games that could’ve swung either way if they’d shot even 30 percent from the field — which still isn’t even great — but the shooting didn’t come through.

You know who would help in this situation?

Where would this team be right now with [TJ Weeks]? –Jesse Allen/Twitter

Could you imagine if Mitchell was throwing out to an open TJ Weeks, who was shooting 48.5 percent from three through 10 games and averaging almost 15 points a night? Defenses now can focus on two things: double the hell out of Mitchell, run Pierre off the 3-point line. Weeks’ shooting would be huge, not only for his actual production, but for the way he’d open up the game for Pierre and Mitchell.

The offense cratered a bit after Weeks’ injury in December, and has only recently started to rebound with Dibaji Walker finding some rhythm, Preston Santos chipping in offensively and Mitchell smoking every big man in the A-10. The only silver lining is that Weeks’ injury opened the door for Santos to pick up a lot of minutes and eventually a starting role, in which he’s been a revelation; but Weeks could’ve probably swung a few games on his own, and this team could very realistically be 8-6 or 9-7 instead of 6-8 in the A-10.

Finishing this year and into next year, is there enough rebounding/interior [defense], or does UMass need a roster addition(s)? -Tim Robertson/Twitter 

Seems like recruiting is really focusing on wings with very little effort being made to replace Djery. Is that how it actually is; is this just not getting discussed or perhaps waiting on a potential grad transfer? -Tom Smiarowski/Twitter

As far as I’m concerned, UMass needs another big, and I think McCall and his staff know that. Once Baptiste graduates, the biggest non-Mitchell guys left are 6-foot-9, 190-pound Dibaji Walker and 6-foot-7, 195-pound Samba Diallo; those guys can (and probably should) be used as stretch fours, and at a push small-ball fives, but Mitchell can’t play 40 minutes and those guys aren’t best used as centers.

The Minutemen have two signees at the moment: Brewster Academy guard Javohn Garcia and Woodstock Academy wing Cairo McCrory. A lot of the UMass recruiting buzz is about Commonwealth guard Femi Odukale — more on him in a second — but there’s definitely plenty of interest in at least two bigs: Woodstock Academy’s Chad Venning and Dyondre Dominguez.

As they both play for Woodstock — I need not explain the connection there — and Expressions Elite — AAU team of a certain Tre Mitchell and Preston Santos — the connections are there. Whether it’s another signee or a grad transfer however, UMass needs another big to play behind (or alongside) Mitchell next season.

Chances of getting Femi [Odukale] and how it affects the team? -David Lowell/Twitter

Seems UMass Twitter has a bit of Femi Fever lately, and for good reason — the guy can play. He’s a big point guard, 6-foot-5 that can handle the ball (think more Jordan Goodwin than Sean East) and score, plus he’s is as physically strong as prep guards get. New England Recruiting Report has him as the No. 1 prospect in Massachusetts and the No. 9 guy in New England for a reason.

He’d be a huge get for UMass, but I don’t see the Minutemen as the frontrunners; East, Weeks, Pierre, Garcia, McCrory, Kolton Mitchell, John Buggs — it’s a crowded backcourt already. He spoke highly of Pitt after a visit over the weekend, and the Panthers might be the frontrunners.

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

Chances? I don’t know, maybe 20-30 percent? Still good odds to get a guy that would make a real impact, even if it would make rotations real complicated.

What/who has surprised you the most this season? -Justin Moffatt/Twitter

I’d probably say Preston Santos’ scoring. As I outlined in his Freshman Film Room video back in November, I thought he’d bring some great energy, defense and rebounding off the bench. I did not expect him to put up five double-digit scoring outings in the span of seven games, shoot 40.6 percent from the field and turn into a real weapon at times. He’s impressed me quite a bit, especially in conference play, and has driven the team forward in difficult moments.

With a full offseason coming up, is physical strength the biggest aspect you’d like to see the freshmen advance in? [email protected]/Twitter

Probably? I think it’s been really clear that Tre Mitchell especially is stronger and in better shape than he was in October, and the result is that he’s been able to bang with the A-10’s biggest and best inside in conference play. Some guys have a lot of room to grow physically, and I think that will make a big difference for a team that’s still second-to-last in team defense in conference play and a bottom-three team in rebounding as well.

From the current roster, in 15 years who would you pick to be the head coach of UMass, who should be the AD, and who should be the Chancellor? –Joel Southall/Twitter

My head coach is Tre Mitchell: after South Carolina shredded UMass’ press back in December, I asked him what he was saying as the lone back in the press. I expected a generic answer about lacking effort, poor rotations, bad execution etc. — Mitchell’s response was as follows: “they kept three guys up occupying three of our guys, then they had one guy at half-court occupying the fourth. They’d kind of throw it ahead to leave me with a big behind me and one guy open on the weak side that could dictate play in the middle: either I play up and they throw a lob over top, if I play back it’s a wide-open layup.”

Does Mitchell have fantastic footwork, excellent touch inside and plain natural scoring talent? Sure. But you can probably see what a smart player he is game-to-game, and he reads and understands the game better than most.

My Director of Athletics is Kolton Mitchell — I feel like you need personality for that job, charisma; “Dooda” seems like the guy.

My Chancellor of the future is John Buggs. If I have to explain that one, I don’t know what to tell you.

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