Starting Five: Defending without Djery, Dibaji Walker’s mid-range game and more

Looking at this week’s UMass men’s basketball film

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Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Amin Touri, Editor in Chief

It’s been an interesting week or so for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team, which followed up wins over Fordham and VCU with a blowout loss on the road to Richmond on Saturday. There’s a lot to go over, so let’s jump right in.

1. Man down

The Minutemen have been without center Djery Baptiste for two games now, with the Haitian big man dealing with knee troubles. The result has been a shift to a more one-dimensional defensive look, with coach Matt McCall forced to play a lot of man without his backup big.

In last week’s mailbag column I mentioned that UMass had had a lot of success mixing zone with man in recent games, with a near-even split of defensive looks — 12 possessions playing zone, 11 in man-to-man — in the first half against Saint Louis. What I didn’t mention was the split between the bigs: when Tre Mitchell was on the floor, the Minutemen were man-to-man for nine possessions, and zone for the other four; with Baptiste, they were in man just twice, opting for a zone on the other eight possession.

That’s 80 percent zone looks with Baptiste on the floor and almost 70 percent man-to-man with Mitchell.

Whatever the reason for that, it means that with Baptiste out, UMass has been in man almost exclusively — they rarely flashed a zone against VCU, while in 35 first-half possessions in Richmond, the Minutemen went to their zone just twice.

I can’t tell you why exactly UMass doesn’t run a zone very often with Mitchell in the game, but let’s accept that they do — McCall often says the game dictates their looks defensively, and he’s inclined to move away from man looks when his team is getting, in his words, “whipped off the bounce.”

Here’s the first possession against Richmond, in which Kolton Mitchell gets whipped off the bounce.

I’m very much not trying to pick on K. Mitchell here — Jacob Gilyard is a very tough guy to stay in front of — but this is the sort of thing that would usually push McCall towards breaking out the zone. But without his backup center, who’s most comfortable anchoring that zone, he had to stay in man for much of the night.

Now, it’s not all on defensive scheming. To quote McCall from Saturday night, “we didn’t show up, that’s the bottom line. The ball didn’t go in the net early on, and I think it affected our effort on defense. We just looked in a fog at times… we’ve struggled with teams that run offense like they run offense.”

He’s right, the effort wasn’t there on defense — except in a couple spots, which we’ll get to later — and the Minutemen seemed like they were in a fog. Here’s an especially foggy defensive possession, and I can’t explain what’s really going on in this one.

I do want to add a caveat: Richmond is a really, really good offensive team. They’re the second-highest scoring team in the conference — they have a middle-of-the-pack defense, but they’re 12-4 in Atlantic 10 play because they’re such a good offensive team.

To focus on the last part of that McCall quote, struggling with teams that run offense “like they run offense,” look at this give-and-go between Grant Golden and Nathan Cayo:

That’s not poor effort, that’s just two smart veterans dusting two freshmen with craft. Similarly, there are few better pick-and-roll tandems in the league than Gilyard and Golden:

Not to dwell on Richmond for two long, but here’s one more — how many times do you think T. Mitchell has ever run into a pindown from the weak side with the ball at the top of the key like this?

UMass’ effort wasn’t good enough on Saturday, that much is clear — but Richmond is a really good, really smart offensive team led by a bunch of juniors and redshirt juniors who could make an All-Conference team. The effort needed to be better, but sometimes a young team gets nuked by a great, experience offense, and that’s not the end of the world.

2. If it is broke, fix it

With Baptiste out of the lineup on Wednesday, McCall opted to have the Minutemen go under screens (especially with Marcus Santos-Silva as the screener) against VCU to lessen the load on T. Mitchell — this was the result in the first half:

Bones Hyland sees K. Mitchell step to go under the screen and has space to pull up and hit from deep —VCU went 4-of-8 from three in the first half with the Minutemen giving them some space coming off of screens.

McCall made an adjustment at halftime. Here’s the first screening action of the second half, a double ball screen at the top of the key:

K. Mitchell and Carl Pierre fight over screens, T. Mitchell hedges and Hyland has nowhere to go. The difference, however, is that it’s much more work for T. Mitchell to have to move his feet and pressure Hyland, then recover back to Santos-Silva rolling to the rim.

Here’s the following possession — again, K. Mitchell fights over the screen, T. Mitchell hedges to keep Hyland from driving, and the freshman can’t do much but pull it back out.

The trouble here is that without Baptiste, you can’t make T. Mitchell do this for 38 minutes a game, especially on consecutive days at the A-10 tournament in just over a week’s time; but this was a smart mid-game adjustment. VCU shot just 1-of-9 from deep in the second half, the Rams’ 3-point percentage dropping from 50 percent to 11 percent after halftime, a big swing in a 60-52 UMass win.

3. Feeding the big man

After the last Starting Five was all about T. Mitchell, I tried to avoid it this time — I do want to highlight, however, how much better UMass has become at feeding Mitchell in the post when he gets position.

UMass’ entry passes back in November were awful. I wish I could find footage from the games against UMass Lowell or Northeastern, but getting the ball to T. Mitchell seemed like a 50-50 proposition at best with turnover totals piling up pretty quickly.

Here’s a series of entry passes from Saturday:

This can seem like a small thing, but I do think part of the reason for T. Mitchell’s hot stretch is that the Minutemen have become so much better at throwing clean entry passes to get him the ball in the right spots with space to work. If you can put the big man in position to eat, eat he will.

4. Walker, Texas (mid) Ranger

As a thought experiment, compare these two players and their per-game averages:

Player A: 4.0 points, 1.6 rebounds, 0.4 blocks, 30.8 percent shooting, 25 percent 3-point shooting, 50 percent free-throw shooting

Player B: 8.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 0.6 blocks, 43.9 percent shooting, 26.9 percent 3-point shooting, 82.4 percent free-throw shooting

Who are you taking? I’d venture to guess that you’d choose Player B.

Player A, as it happens, is Dibaji Walker in his first eight games for UMass — Player B is Dibaji Walker in his last nine.

Secondary scoring has been a big topic this season, with T. Mitchell and Pierre accounting for a large percentage of UMass’ scoring since TJ Weeks went down, and Walker seems like the guy with the offensive talent to provide that.

Walker has started to live in the high post, with his work in the mid-range his biggest asset. He had 22 points against St. Joe’s at the end of January and nearly every bucket came from a catch at the free-throw line, in the soft spot of the Hawks’ zone — he started to work there against Richmond on Saturday too.

Aside from T. Mitchell, nobody on this team can consistently create their own shot in this sort of area:

It also helps that he’s got some craft out of the triple threat, and can get to the basket when teams start to respect his jumper, as St. Joe’s did:

Walker finding his rhythm is a big deal for a UMass team in need of consistent buckets outside of T. Mitchell and Pierre, and the fact that his rebounding and defense have improved makes him an important two-way asset down the stretch.

I’d argue he’s the most talented offensively player on the team outside of T. Mitchell, and the Minutemen will need his mid-range scoring heading into Brooklyn.

5. Preston Santos, flying around

Was the defensive effort on Saturday below par? Yes. And yet, Preston Santos still made some ridiculous effort plays like this one, an absurd close-out on Blake Francis, who looked like he was wide open at the top of the key:

This is unbelievable. Who does this? Look at how much space Francis has when he catches:

What’s that, like 12 feet of space? And it gets swatted like it’s nothing.

Santos hasn’t had his best couple weeks offensively, but his energy on defense is unwavering.

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