UMass is back on the radar
The players and coaches of the University of Massachusetts basketball team likely left Madison Square Garden Tuesday night feeling a combination of sadness and resolve.
That's probably because while the Minutemen did not advance to the National Invitation Tournament's championship game two days later, they did leave New York feeling like their program was back.
"I'm happy to see the program going in the right direction now as I'm on my way out," UMass center Sean Carter told reporters after the Minutemen fell to eventual NIT champion Stanford in the semifinal.
And why wouldn't Carter be happy? He is the only member of head coach Derek Kellogg's rotation that graduates in June. That means the other seven in the rotation of a 25-12 team return to Amherst next year.
"I think people are now going to look at UMass a little differently, which honestly I like," Kellogg said. "I didn't like the way they looked at UMass for three years, I really didn't."
It has been a slow climb back to respectability for Kellogg, his coaching staff and players.
When the former Minuteman guard returned to coach his alma mater, he was replacing Travis Ford who had gone 49-20 in his final two years at Amherst. Ford took the Minutemen to the NIT championship in 2008, losing to Ohio State in the title game.
Then Ford bolted for Oklahoma State and T. Boone Pickens' megabucks. Kellogg left John Calipari's staff at Memphis to coach UMass. Things did not start well, and by year three, there were some wondering if Kellogg was right for the job.
Two years of 12-win seasons and a 15-15 record in 2009-10 gave Kellogg a three-year record of 39-53. The success of this season gives Kellogg a career record of one game under .500.
"I thought we were going to be very good," Kellogg said, even though the Minutemen were ranked 12th in the Atlantic 10 Conference's preseason poll. "When I watched the team in individual work, I saw how hard they were working in the summer.
"I actually was happy where we were picked in the preseason. I was happy with what people were writing."
Those of us who were writing that UMass was a middle-of-the-pack team in the A-10 won't be making that same mistake again.
The A-10 turned out to be a stronger league than some had imagined. Temple, Xavier, Saint Louis and league champion Saint Bonaventure all made the NCAA Tournament. UMass, Dayton, LaSalle and Saint Joseph's all qualified for the NIT.
And if the Minutemen aren't picked to be at the top, or near the top of the A-10 next year then some of my brethren in the media aren't paying attention.
In addition to the core group of seven returning, freshman Cady Lalanne and junior Sampson Carter will return from injury. Lalanne was a preseason A-10 All-Rookie team selection and played in 14 games before suffering an injury. Carter was given an injury redshirt.
Jordan Laguerre was UMass' other top recruit last year, and he had to sit out this year as a partial qualifier. The 6-foot-2 guard can play both backcourt positions.
Even Carter's size will be replaced by 6-9 Tyler Bergantino of Florida.
The UMass success this past season started with Chaz Williams, the transfer point guard from Hofstra. While Williams didn't have his best game in the NIT, Kellogg said that without Williams UMass wouldn't have achieved what it did.
"He's reached and exceeded expectations," said Kellogg. "His competitiveness, toughness, his will to win, I think that's what our team thrived on and what I loved almost as much as anything.
"He has a little following now, not just in the community but nationally. He represents UMass basketball and he's fun to watch. I think he's elevated our program which has been fantastic."
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