Commentary

UMass basketball is back on the map

Unbeaten Minutemen hoping to parlay Top 25 resurgence to NCAA tourney return

Updated: December 6, 2013, 4:47 PM ET
By Marty Dobrow | Special to ESPNBoston.com

On Sunday morning at 10:30, the only buzz at the Mullins Center was literal. High above the basketball court at the University of Massachusetts, the bright lights sounded like hornets.

They illuminated the 9,493 maroon seats, all of them empty. Then again, the seats haven't all been full for many years.

[+] EnlargeMassachusetts
AP Photo/Mic SmithCady Lalanne (25) & Co. celebrated after winning the Charlestown Classic on Nov. 24, but they have their sights set on bigger dreams.

The buzzing lights shined on the banners from the glory days. On one wall, there are retired numbers of players like Julius Erving, Marcus Camby and Lou Roe. And hovering over the court, almost tauntingly, are the white NCAA banners, seven of them in a row from 1992 to 1998. Some are stitched with the most-treasured alliterations in college basketball. Sweet 16. Elite Eight. Final Four.

The lights made the empty parquet floor sparkle. Around the edges, two team managers, Dustin Dobbs and Zack Tucker, set up the clocks, put out some drinks and rolled out a rack of Spalding TF-1000 Legacy basketballs with the "Deep Channel Design." With everything set for practice, Dobbs and Tucker each rolled a ball off the rack, thudded it off the parquet, and flicked up some jump shots.

Hey, no charge for dreaming the dream.

Lights aside, there is also a metaphorical buzz around the UMass program that is hard to ignore. After capturing the Charleston Classic the weekend before Thanksgiving, the Minutemen ran their record to 6-0, with wins against teams from power conferences like the ACC (Clemson and Boston College), the SEC (LSU) and the Big Ten (Nebraska). On Nov. 25, the Minutemen cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1998, landing at No. 24.

From there, they put the "bask" in basketball -- not playing for over a week -- until upping their record to 7-0 on Tuesday with a 69-57 win at Eastern Michigan. As of Friday they are ranked 21st in the AP poll and No. 1 in the nation in ESPN's RPI.

It is heady stuff for a program that has been in hoop hibernation for a decade and a half. As senior Sampson Carter ambled out of the locker room onto the court on Sunday, he admitted that the feeling was sweet, indeed.

"This is definitely where I wanted to be," he said. "I actually dreamed this and imagined this spot for a long time. To finally be here is a great feeling."

UMass hasn't exactly come from nowhere. Sixth-year head coach Derek Kellogg has built the program back to respectability in recent years (25 wins in 2011-12, 21 last season, both ending in the NIT). This year, though, the Minutemen felt primed for another level and have let it be known that nothing short of a return to the NCAA tournament would be acceptable. After preseason workouts, reputed to be especially intense this year, star senior point guard Chaz Williams said the team was ready to pounce. "It was like, 'Let us out of the cage, let us out of the cage!'" he said.

The Minutemen have surged behind what is called in local circles, "Chazketball" -- the hell-bent push-the-ball on offense, pressure-it-on-defense style that defines the kinetic Williams. Listed with a generosity bordering on the absurd at 5-foot-9, Williams is the most dynamic and charismatic player UMass has featured in many moons. He is a two-time first-team All Atlantic 10 player. Though he is not apt to live up to the typo in the UMass online media guide (in which Celtics and former Butler coach Brad Stevens says, "We just tried to double him without overextending ourselves, which was tough because he is so god with the ball"), Williams is nevertheless the player most expected to lead UMass to the promised land of the NCAA tournament.

[+] Enlarge Chaz Williams
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsChaz Williams is the engine that makes the Minutemen go.

This year he has quite the supporting cast. Prime among them is redshirt junior Cady Lalanne, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound player who has been a total force in the paint. He is leading UMass in both scoring (16.4 ppg) and rebounding (11.4). After two years of being hampered by foot injuries, he seems both spry (think Jack LaLanne) and overpowering (think Cady Shaq).

"I've never shied away from how good I thought Cady could be," Kellogg said. "I saw it a little bit in high school and AAU. And I've seen it in flashes here."

Lalanne has given UMass a rebounding presence -- especially on the offensive glass -- that has been sorely missing for most of the time that the current players have been alive. He gorges on missed Minuteman jumpers with a ravenous appetite; no Div. 1 player in America can match his six offensive boards per game. His philosophy around attacking the rim is eminently practical: "If you really want to get it, you go get it."

The whole squad seems to be getting it pretty well. There is an appealing unselfishness about this group with five players averaging in double figures: Lalanne, Williams (15.4), Carter (12.9), Raphiael Putney (12.3) and Derrick Gordon (11.0). Four of them have led the team in scoring on given nights. Given the stiffness of the competition, the plus-6.7 rebounding margin has been a testament to toughness. And the true constant has been a relentlessly pesky defense that has taken opponents out of their comfort zone.

"UMass basketball is a pressure and pain game, defensively and offensively," explains Williams. "We just want to go out there and impose our will."

"We're an energy team," adds Kellogg. "Play with energy and good things happen. You might not always make the right pass, the right shot, the right play. But if you bring energy and play with some toughness, you have a chance."

Kellogg will be the first to say that a return to the national rankings in early December is not exactly cause for hanging a "Mission Accomplished" banner at the Mullins Center. But he doesn't dismiss the significance of the achievement either. He remembers quite well the excitement during his freshman year of 1991-92 when UMass made it into the national rankings for the first time under Calipari.

On Jan. 4, 1992, 8,400 fans packed the Springfield Civic Center (now called the MassMutual Center) to see the Minutemen take on 14th-ranked Oklahoma. That was, to that point, the largest crowd ever to see a home UMass basketball game. The Minutemen won going away, 86-73. Between semesters, the Minutemen were then holed up in the Campus Center hotel on Monday when the AP poll came out. Kellogg was watching ESPN with teammates Lou Roe (now one of his assistant coaches), Tony Barbee and Harper Williams.

"You kind of remember that small TV," Kellogg said. "I think we saw it come across the ticker on the bottom. I remember everybody being really excited and kind of jumping up and down and feeling like that's a big-time accomplishment."

[+] EnlargeCady Lalanne
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsCady Lalanne's strong play around the basket has contributed to UMass' resurgence.

Of course, that was a long time ago. Chaz Williams turned 9 months old that day.

In some ways, Kellogg and Roe represent a past that has been hovering over the program for years, a reminder to subsequent players of what they were not. There were banners and trophies gathering dust. There were distant memories of years of capacity crowds, 9,493 every night at the Mullins Center. And for good measure, the last two national championships have been won by teams coached by guys with longstanding ties to UMass: Calipari and Rick Pitino -- a flashy point guard from the early 1970s and former social chairman of Lambda Chi.

In his first years back, Kellogg used to reference the past with some frequency -- in large part to, as he puts it, "sell a vision" to recruits, fans and students. These days he mostly lets the past be the past. He says that he is ready to take the old trophies, "move those to the side and start a new era of UMass basketball. We love the history and what has been done here, but I think it's time to focus on the future and what it can be."

The players say Kellogg is forever challenging them to chart out their own legacy. "Everybody wants to leave something memorable so that when we come back here 20 years from now, we'll have something up here to be proud of," says Lalanne, pointing to the rafters.

The buzz is back. Buzzketball. Chazketball. UMass basketball. When Williams leads UMass out of the tunnel onto the court for Saturday's game at the MassMutual Center against a tough Brigham Young team, he might well be greeted by the first home sellout crowd since 2006.

For all his floor-slapping, push-the pace intensity, Williams is given to introspection. He understands the journey. He understands the stakes.

"Everybody likes to win," he says, standing shirtless by the court, his chiseled torso a canvas of tattoos, including his mom's name, Diane, right over his heart. "Sometimes it takes a long process to make the progress. We just kept working. Coach, he did a wonderful job of keeping us together through everything, through the ups and downs, all our falls. He still let us know that there are better days to come, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next week, but in the future it is."

Marty Dobrow

ESPNBoston.com

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