UMass men’s basketball facing a lot of questions with Djery Baptiste’s injury

Graduate transfer will miss third straight game on Wednesday

Parker+Peters

Parker Peters

By Javier Melo, Collegian Staff

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team will have its hands full on Wednesday against La Salle.

Although UMass (13-16, 7-9 Atlantic 10) pulled out a victory in its first game against the Explorers (14-14, 5-11 A-10), that was before the recent injury to center Djery Baptiste. The graduate transfer is slated to miss his third straight game with a knee issue when the Minutemen travel to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In the absence of Baptiste, UMass has seen a lot of his minutes go to freshman Tre Mitchell. While Mitchell has done well with the slight add-on in time, the toll that his increased role on offense and defense will take on his body may be to the detriment of the team’s success.

In the A-10, Mitchell has gone up against the likes of Obi Toppin, Hasahn French, Marcus Santos-Silva, Cyril Langevine and on Wednesday, Jared Kimbrough. Each battle has been a physical one for the 19-year-old, but he at least had Baptiste to give him some rest for small stretches of the game. He hasn’t been afforded that luxury recently.

“It’s hard,” McCall said. “It’s not just the minutes, it’s the physical confrontation of every game that he’s having to deal with. The banging, the hitting, the double teams, the triple teams – and then we’re asking him to go down to the other end and defend. It’s a lot. It’s a lot on his body, you’ve got to really manage his load in practice even more than anything and then find a way to get him more rest.”

Recently UMass has opted to switch up its defense mid-game and throw different looks at teams pretty much every possession. Since Baptiste has been down, there has been a lot of man-to-man. In fact, the Minutemen flashed a zone just twice out of 35 possessions against Richmond in the first half. The constant switching puts a lot of pressure on Mitchell and with nobody behind him, keeping him from getting exhausted and staying out of foul trouble is a must.

That doesn’t mean that UMass will stop switching its defensive looks, it just means that in the small sample of games that Baptiste has been out, it hasn’t done it as much.

“We need to use zone, we need to play zone more,” McCall said. “I like when Tre’s out, playing man-to-man and switching everything. I think we can be effective in doing that and we’re going to have to do that on Wednesday.”

In Baptiste’s absence and Mitchell’s need to rest every once in a while, UMass has been throwing out lineups that involve Preston Santos, Samba Diallo and Dibaji Walker playing together. The three forwards can switch onto anyone and are each high intensity defenders who can shoulder a small amount of the load that Mitchell takes on each game.

The absence also allows for other members of the roster to get more minutes. Keon Clergeot has been a beneficiary of increased minutes, as he’s a player that does a lot of the dirty work and brings some of the toughness that McCall demands from his players.

“We need them,” McCall said. “We need Djery out there. Not necessarily for our team, but for him being a senior and wanting to finish it out the right way. We need all hands on deck. Any time someone goes down, it obviously increases minutes for other guys. One of the things that Djery really brought to our team was physicality, toughness, rebounding, defending, energy and we don’t have him for that, and we need guys to step it up and bring that while he’s out.”

Dibaji Walker, specifically, is a player who has seen a role change since the injury. At 6-foot-9, Walker has the length to make an effort at defending bigs, even if his frame isn’t there. He’s capable of contesting and blocking shots around the basket and in the short minutes that are required of him to step into the role in the middle, he has the potential of being able to handle it.

“I have a never back down mentality,” Walker said. “I don’t care how big anybody is, you’re just going to have to show me and score on me. I’m going to do what I can and I feel like I’m bigger than I look.”

UMass travels to La Salle on Wednesday with tip-off slated for 7 p.m.

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