It took some time for Massachusetts to finally get on the court this season. The Minutemen paused team activities in mid-November following a positive COVID-19 test within the program, forcing them to withdraw from a slew of opening week games at the Mohegan Sun, and delaying their debut until December 11.
All the while, the country may have been delayed in seeing one of the sport’s best players.
Sophomore forward Tre Mitchell burst onto the 2020-21 scene, scoring 31 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in the Minutemen’s opening win over Northeastern. The preseason all-league first teamer then topped that eye-popping effort on Wednesday against La Salle, scoring a career-high 37 points in a blowout road win.
“I’ll say it again, he’s one of the best, if not the best, big men in the country,” said Minutemen coach Matt McCall in a postgame press conference after the La Salle win posted by the team.
McCall and UMass are banking on that star power being the centerpiece of a team that hopes to defy expectations and take a leap forward in another deep A-10. The Minutemen were picked eighth in the league’s preseason poll, something that rankled a team that had finished last season on a 4-2 run and had posted its best league record (8-10) since 2015.
Those modest numbers, however, were sprinkled with potential.
UMass was one of the country’s least experienced teams, with Mitchell at the center of a heavy reliance on youth. Last season, the then-freshman was responsible for nearly a third of the Minutemen’s possessions, a rate only exceeded by two other freshman in the country — Winthrop’s D.J. Burns and then-Virginia Tech’s Landers Nolley. His brilliant debut season (17.7 PPG, 7.2 RPG) was capped with a crown jewel performance in the team’s regular season finale, as he scored 34 points and pulled down 12 rebounds in a one-point loss to a Rhode Island team fighting for its NCAA Tournament resume.
Is there more in store for one of the country’s most efficient scorers? That certainly looked the case against La Salle, where Mitchell fought off waves of Explorers to rack up a bevy of and-ones and baskets in the paint.
“Some of the moves he made, some of the catches,” McCall said in the postgame press conference posted by the team. “He gets down there and the ball is being thrown up in the air to him and he’s got four or five bodies draped all over him and for him to go up and finish the way he does, I don’t know how many and-one’s he had, but he drew ten fouls. That’s impressive.”
That dominance in the paint was evident as UMass tore open a close game with an 11-0 run early in the second half, of which Mitchell was responsible for eight points. Three came in a darting and-one, while another three came from the outside — a place the big man flashed potential a year ago (37.9% on 65 3PA in A-10 play).
Mitchell, an ESPN four-star and top-100 recruit, was seen as a transformative prospect when he signed with the program. McCall talked about Mitchell’s evolution as a prospect with the Daily Hampshire Gazette last season, crediting his prep school coach Tony Bergeron, who joined the program at the same time as an assistant.
“Tre’s development in large part is due to Tony Bergeron,” McCall said two weeks ago. “I saw Tre two years ago at Woodstock when he first got there and he does not look the way he does now and his game evolved. From what they were doing there from a strength and conditioning standpoint and Tony what he was doing with him individual instruction-wise and the style of play, he became one of the top-90, 80, whatever his ranking was, player in the country in large part of what Coach Bergeron was doing there at Woodstock.”
In general, UMass has become tied at the hip with Woodstock at present. In addition to Mitchell, there are six other players — or, over half the scholarship players — that spent time at the Connecticut prep school. That includes Wichita State transfer Noah Fernandes, who has jumped in as the team’s primary point guard after a redshirt year. The biggest addition so far, however, is not in that Woodstock seven.
Freshman guard Javohn Garcia (15.0 PPG, 57.1 3P%) has added a scoring punch on the perimeter, though he had a quiet game as Mitchell battered La Salle. Garcia is off to a scorching start from three (4-7 3FG) in a hyper-small sample size, and if that translates across the entire season it would be a boon for a team that struggled from deep, especially in league play, last season.
Those players will in any case complement Mitchell, as the star big man seeks to lead UMass to its first NCAA Tournament in six seasons.