Tuesday March 27, 2012

The last time the University of Massachusetts played in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals, the rallying cry was to get New York City natives Gary Forbes and Dante Milligan home.

As head coach Derek Kellogg and his staff prepare the Minutemen for tonight's semifinal against Stanford, he and his staff are thinking along those same lines. They're bringing their Brooklyn-born point guard back home.

"You know we all wanted to get Chaz [Williams] home, and I think the guys on the team from the seniors on down wanted to give him the opportunity to get back to New York City and play in Madison Square Garden," Kellogg said at a Monday news conference in New York.

The Minutemen and the Cardinal will play in the 7 p.m. opener of the semifinal doubleheader at the "World's Most Famous Arena." Minnesota and Washington will play in the nightcap.

The championship game will be played Thursday at 7 p.m.

The Minutemen (25-11) are making their first postseason appearance since Kellogg took over for Travis Ford. Stanford (24-11) beat Pac-12 tournament champion Colorado twice in the regular season, but finished seventh in the conference. The Buffaloes were the only Pac-12 team to make the NCAA Tournament.

UMass reached the semifinals in 2008. Ford, who took the Oklahoma State job within a week after taking the Minutemen to the Garden, led UMass to a 78-66 win over Florida and then lost 92-85 in the title game to Ohio State.

Stanford won an NIT title back in 1991. Head coach Johnny Dawkins' Cardinal finished second to Syracuse in the Preseason NIT, and became only the fourth team to play in the Preseason and Postseason NIT in the same season.

"We were here in the Preseason NIT and I thought it was a great springboard for our season," Dawkins said. "I think the game versus Syracuse was a terrific game for us, for our team to grow.

"We had a good season and now we have the opportunity to be back here in New York to compete again for a championship."

Williams, the transfer from Hofstra, has taken his game to another level in the NIT. He has averaged 22.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists in three games. He was named a first-team All-Atlantic 10 selection.

Kellogg said that Terrell Vinson has been huge for the Minutemen. The coach said he was looking for a fourth scorer to go along with Williams, Raphiael Putney and Jesse Morgan -- and Vinson has stepped into the mix. All four are averaging in double figures for the Minutemen.

Dawkins, who played for and coached with Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, has mixed and matched all year. He has used 15 different starting lineups but Josh Owens has been in every mix. Owens is second on the team with a 11.7 scoring average and he leads Stanford at 5.7 rebounds per game.

Since UMass last played in the NIT, the tournament has come under the umbrella of the NCAA. When UMass played in 2008, the Minutemen had two home games and traveled to Syracuse before getting to the garden. Under the NCAA's reign, the NIT field is seeded -- like the NCAA Tournament -- and the higher seeds get to play at home. That's why UMass played road games at Mississippi State, Seton Hall and Drexel. Winning those three games got the Minutemen a bus ride from Amherst to Manhattan.

"We're fortunate after some great games in Starkville, Miss., after going to Seton Hall in a tough environment and then in a game that I don't think either of us wanted to play," Kellogg said of his team's road map to New York.

That last game was the quarterfinal game against the Dragons of coach Bruiser Flint. Flint was an assistant under John Calipari at UMass when Kellogg was the Minutemen's point guard.

With the NCAA leading the way, the NIT has improved its scheduling. Regular-season conference champions that don't make the NCAA tourney are automatically invited to the NIT. It's no longer just about who draws fans.

"The history of this great tournament is not diminished in any way," NIT Committee chairman C.M. Newton said. "With these four teams, four great universities ... I think we add to that legacy."