AMHERST >> For University of Massachusetts basketball coach Derek Kellogg, today's home opener against Howard University could tell him a lot about where his squad is.
"We're very, very young. We're kind of in the infant stages of where we're going to be," said Kellogg.
The Minutemen, who were 17-15 and 10-8 in the Atlantic 10 Conference last year, play two of their first five games in the friendly confines of the Mullins Center. After today's opener, the Minutemen hit the road for a game at Harvard. UMass will return home on Thursday, Nov. 19, for a game against Central Arkansas. That's part of the MGM Grand Main Event tournament, for which the Minutemen will travel to Las Vegas right before Thanksgiving.
"There's a lot of energy and we're ready to start, and prove people wrong," said Davis.
Dayton was picked by the Atlantic 10's coaches and a media panel as the preseason favorite to win the conference title, followed by Rhode Island and Davidson. UMass was picked 10th.
UMass is rebuilding, and will have to do it with a thinner-than-expected bench. The Minutemen lost three starters in Cady Lalanne, Maxie Esho and Derrick Gordon who were three of the top four scorers on last year's team.
Couple that with the fact that graduate student transfer Antwan Space is not with the team for personal reasons and freshman guard Luwane Pipkins was ruled academically ineligible, and Kellogg has some work to do.
"I think we have a good group of guys who are going to improve and get better as the season goes on," said Kellogg, who begins his eighth season at the helm. "I'll be candid. We have a long way to go.
"I think we're a work in progress, but this may be a team that because of our youth and how many new players we have stepping into new roles, could be a team that makes more of a jump as the season goes on than teams from the last couple of years."
UMass' experience is in the backcourt and on the wings. Jabarie Hinds, who played 21.6 minutes per game and averaged 8.1 points coming off the bench, will slide into the guard spot next to Trey Davis. Davis is a junior and Hinds is a redshirt junior after transferring from West Virginia.
UMass will have some inexperience in the frontcourt with freshmen Malik Hines and Rashaan Holloway stepping into important roles. With the loss of Space and an injury to Tyler Bergantino that has slowed the senior center's progress, the Minutemen will be learning as they go.
"This is a group of guys that are fun to be around. Every day, you have to teach them. It's almost like you're coaching a team of younger kids," said Kellogg. "I think we have a chance to make some strides as the season goes on."
The future may be bright as the Minutemen bring in a four-man class that is ranked as the best in the A-10 and one of the top 25 in the nation. Two players, forward Chris Baldwin and guard Unique McLean, have Western Mass. ties. Baldwin, the No. 2-ranked player in Massachusetts, played at Springfield Central before going to Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburgh. McLean played at the MacDuffie School in Granby. The other members of the class, DeJon Jarreau and Brison Gresham, are teammates from McDonogh 35 High School in New Orleans.
"We looked for competitors that fit how I coach and how we play with this class," Kellogg said in a statement. "I believe we have a great combination of athleticism and talent in these multi-dimensional players that will add to the exciting brand that is UMass basketball."
They are the future, but for Kellogg, it is about the present which starts this afternoon.
"I believe this team has a higher ceiling than a few teams that, I don't know, kind of peaked early on," he said. "I'm enjoying watching Rashaan Holloway and Malik Hines get better, and watching guys who have been here take on new roles.
"We're going to be feisty. We're going to be chippy and tough to compete against."