Walfish: Yep, I was wrong about these UMass freshmen

  • UMass junior guard Carl Pierre, center, puts his arms around freshmen Tre Mitchell, left, and Sean East II after Mitchell was fouled on a basket against Duquesne in the first half of the Minutemen’s 73-64 win over the Dukes at the Mullins Center in Amherst on Jan. 25. Ever since the win over Duquesne, UMass’ freshmen have been as resilient as any group of college basketball players around the country regardless of academic class. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/8/2020 6:50:42 PM

AMHERST

Five months ago, I had to fill out a ballot ranking the teams in the Atlantic 10 based on how I figured they would finish.

At that moment in October when I sent in my predictions to the conference office, I picked UMass to finish 12th in the league. My reasoning at that time was very simple, I don’t trust freshmen to be able to live up to the hype that surrounds them. I especially don’t have much faith in them to win consistently in a league as loaded with veterans as the A10 was this season.

Yet, here we are with the conference tournament coming up this week and the Minutemen are seeded eighth and playing the team I – and many others – predicted to win the whole league. I’m not afraid to say I was wrong about these freshmen because they deserve all the credit for going out and proving their moxie for four-plus months this season.

It’s the nature of fandom to hope for the best when it comes to your favorite team. You always think of the brightest possible outcome when a recruit signs to play at your school or when your favorite team signs a free agent or makes a trade for a player. It was easy to assume that because Tre Mitchell was dominant as a high school player, he was going to be dominant as a college player right off the bat. It was natural to assume that this group of freshmen would just jell so cohesively, buy into Matt McCall’s culture and finish at .500 or better.

In reality, though, that just isn’t the norm when it comes to college basketball. There’s a reason why Duke, Kansas and Kentucky don’t win the national championship every year even though they always sign the best recruits. If you look around the sport this year, it’s veteran teams that have done far better than the teams with those blue-chip prospects. The trend is even more true at the mid-major level where cultivating the right team to be a strong contender does not happen overnight.

So when McCall talked about the maturity of his team after Saturday’s gut-wrenching 64-63 loss to Rhode Island, he hit on what has made UMass basketball so special over the last six weeks. Ever since the win over Duquesne in late January, this group of freshmen has been as resilient as any group of college basketball players around the country regardless of academic class. They could have easily folded after early runs by opponents or panicked with late leads knowing they had already blown so many this season, but instead they fought back. They learned how to take a punch in the Atlantic 10 and respond with their own haymaker at the right moment to give scare to some of the best teams in this league.

A lot of credit for that needs to go to Mitchell, who wouldn’t have been a first-team all-A10 player for me just three weeks ago, but now definitely deserves to be one. There are not enough adjectives in the world to describe what Mitchell has done this season or the growth he has made in these last six weeks. But Mitchell alone did not turn UMass into a contender over the last six weeks.

It took the dedication of Preston Santos into being that energy guy for the Minutemen and focusing solely on that. It’s the ability for Sean East II to burst through the freshman wall that hit him right after conference play began and fine-tune his game to be an asset on the court again. It’s Samba Diallo doing all the little things for UMass that never show up on the final box score and would be missed if you didn’t watch the game.

It’s a team committed to their roles and willing to sacrifice for the good of the team, the coveted missing link McCall continued to harp on last year as the season turned into a disaster. It’s a team that’s as connected as ever before that genuinely cares about one another and props them up whenever possible. A group of individuals that doesn’t allow the fun they have off the court to distract from the work they need to put in on it.

What makes UMass such a dangerous team for the league in New York this week is the veteran savvy of the freshmen at the moment. This is a team playing like a team filled with juniors and seniors despite having just two scholarship players on the roster in those classes. Never would I have believed UMass could ever reach this level of maturity and poise with so many freshmen playing critical minutes.

So yes, I was wrong about this group, and that’s OK. This group is special and defies every single norm about college basketball. Which is fine by them, because they don’t believe in the status quo anyway.

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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