Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Mitchell Kates Factor

It's been a remarkable year for the MIT men's basketball program. Little was expected of the team entering the 2009-10 campaign. Although the team celebrated its first conference title and NCAA appearance, the loss of starting point guard Bradley Gampel and D3Hoops National Player of the Year Jimmy Bartolotta chased away any thoughts that MIT could come anywhere near replicating last season's success. However, as the Engineers prepare for their final game of the regular season, MIT has managed to assemble the winningest season in 109 years, and is gunning for its first regular-season conference title when it travels to Springfield on Saturday. Four new faces have paved the way for the Engineers' success. Will Tashman, who may have the best long-term potential, has been solid at both ends, Jimmy Burke has been one of the league's top threats on the perimiter, and Noel Hollingsworth's incredible work ethic and deft touch around the basket have been instrumental in guiding MIT through unchartered waters. But make no mistake, MIT has been one of the best teams in Division III all season primarily because there has never been another Mitchell Kates.

Point guard is the most important position in basketball. Not because the best players always play at that spot, but because the position is so specialized. The PG is responsible for running a team's offense, controlling the ball, and making sure the right players get the right touches at the right time. Across every level of play, championship teams nearly always benefit from great play at the point. Such has been the case for an overachieving MIT squad.

"I feel that I thrive in transition and in the open court," said Kates. "As a point guard, I understand the strengths and weaknesses of my teammates and try to put them in positions where they can be successful. I try to be the link between the coaching staff and my team on the floor."

It's highly unusual for a young player to understand their role so early into their college career, especially when considering the difficult transition high school players need to make in terms of physicality and speed of the game. But Mitch's proven ability is also why head coach Larry Anderson has remarked that Mitch may be the most college-ready freshman the coach has ever had.

"It's hard to describe what Mitch means to our basketball team," noted Anderson. "He keeps us under control. He is completely unselfish with the basketball, and he has unique athletic gifts that make him a very special player for us."

Although Mitch is averaging over 13 points per game and is leading the NEWMAC in assists and steals, his numbers don't necessarily relay his value. He began his career by picking up MVP honors at the Resselaer Tip-Off Tournament (he scored a game-best 22 in a one-point win over RPI); scored a career-high 28 and added an Institute record eight steals in a win against Curry; clinched an overtime win against Gordon with a driving lay-up; scored on three straight possessions in overtime to lift MIT past Salem State; and added a team-best 14 as he comfortably held his own against Harvard. Earlier in the season at Clark, with the team trailing by 14 late in the first half, Kates scored the last six points of the period, before MIT finished the rally after intermission. Even in Wednesday's loss at Wheaton, Kates was arguably the best player on the floor as he dished out eight assists, while adding six rebounds, two steals, and a game-high 24 points to lead a ferocious comeback that unfortunately fell just short. His confidence in his teammates as well as his own abilities is palpable, but what may be even more impressive is his understanding of the game and what it will take to lead MIT to heights never before achieved.

"Our team is capable of accomplishing anything," added Kates. "I see no reason why we can’t set our goals at a national championship, but we need to make big strides between now and then to even consider such a lofty goal. Our team struggles to bring great intensity to every play, every game. In order to win big games in the playoffs, we will need to bring more energy throughout the course of the game and execute better in the half court both offensively and defensively as well as in transition."

Kates is a basketball player mature beyond his years, but he's also quick to point out the luxury of having a dominant big man like Hollingsworth, and shooters like Burke and Billy Johnson who can fill it up. And beyond the talent, he recognizes the benefit of having teammates that all enjoy playing together.

"I am lucky to be part of a great recruiting class, so I will get to develop a great relationship with my teammates over the next couple of years. I feel that the closer you grow with your teammates outside of basketball, the easier it becomes to communicate with them on the court."

If nothing else, Kates understands his role, and that much of the team's success hinges on him doing the right things. MIT will experience success and defeat as a team, but if MIT is still playing basketball in March, don't be surprised if Kates is the factor that propels this group over the top.