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Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Amid battle, there's common ground

By Marty Dobrow
Special to ESPNBoston.com

There is a lot of common ground in the Commonwealth.

Harvard's hike along the Pike to Amherst to take on the University of Massachusetts for a morning matinee on Tuesday showcased college basketball programs that share quite a bit. That included 64 points apiece as the clock ticked down at high noon at the Mullins Center.

Then Chaz Williams drew a swarm of Ivy Leaguers in the paint and swung the ball out to Sampson Carter in the left corner. With the UMass bench screaming "Knockdown!," Carter -- who hadn't hit a shot in the basketball equivalent of the Paleolithic Era (0-2 Tuesday, coming off the heels of a season cut short last year due to a hip injury) -- obliged with a buzzer-beating three. That shot won it for the Minutemen, launching a season of high expectations with a moment of high drama.

"I've been looking forward to this game for about a year-and-a-half now," said Carter.

The game, arguably pitting Massachusetts' two finest college basketball teams against each other, brought together lots of shared history.

Derek Kellogg
The last time UMass and Harvard played was on Dec. 27, 1991, when the Minutemen got two points off the bench from freshman Derek Kellogg -- who's now the UMass coach. Here he's shown in the 1995 NCAA tourney.

Both teams are coached by former point guards who each played for and coached with elite coaches who were point guards themselves: UMass's Derek Kellogg (with John Calipari) and Harvard's Tommy Amaker (with Mike Krzyzewski). Both also recognize that their current point guards provide the fuel for their respective teams.

For UMass, of course, that is the effervescent Chaz Williams. Through Kellogg's first three years of coaching at his alma mater, a revolving door of ineffective point guards spelled underachieving seasons. Last year was a revelation as Williams, a sophomore transfer from Hofstra, became eligible to play and instantly emerged as the team leader. He led UMass to a breakthrough 25-12 season that culminated in the Final Four of the NIT.

This year, with the most returning talent and experience in many moons, anything short of an NCAA appearance would sting something fierce. Williams is at the wheel, and Kellogg feels more than comfortable giving him the keys. Nowhere was that more apparent than on the game's decisive play, when Kellogg eschewed a timeout and let Williams go to work.

"I put the game in the players' hands," Kellogg said. "I learned that many years ago from the guy I played for, Coach Cal. In those situations, let's have our stuff in and let the guys play. ... I was very confident. I think I've got one of the best floor generals in the country, and the other guys feed off of him. So if I put the ball in his hands with some semblance of a set or play, I'm confident that he's going to make a good basketball decision."

With 12 points and 10 assists, Williams was just barely the best point guard on the floor yesterday. Harvard, coming off a breakthrough season of its own (26-5 with a first NCAA appearance in 65 years), got a most encouraging performance from freshman Siyani Chambers. Playing his first Division I game (the Crimson defeated Division III MIT last Friday), Chambers held his own against ferocious pressure. He played all 40 minutes, scoring 14 points, dishing out seven assists and committing just one turnover. The effort earned some praise from his opponent.

"He was pretty solid," said Williams. "He started doing a little trash talking, which got us riled up, so it was pretty cool. The kid has a lot of heart."

Amaker liked what he saw.

"I just thought that was a magnificent performance by Siyani," Amaker said. "To play the way he played with the spirit and energy and toughness, I think he's shown that he's going to be an outstanding player."

***

Chambers had to carry the load at point, of course, because of the conspicuous absence of would-be senior captain Brandyn Curry. Along with fellow senior co-captain Kyle Casey, Curry withdrew from the school after being implicated in the widespread controversy surrounding collaboration on a take-home final exam last spring.

Tommy Amaker
Before coach Tommy Amaker was hired in 2007, Harvard had 11 straight coaches with losing records.

Their absence made the heart of the UMass student section a little bit fonder. At times, Harvard free throws were greeted with a chant of "Take-home test!"

All things considered, it was relatively gentle treatment, and there, too, the institutions have some shared history. When he was a senior captain at UMass in 1994-95, Kellogg saw his team become enveloped in an academic scandal of its own. While Kellogg -- a three-time All-Atlantic 10 Academic Team selection -- was not implicated, many of his teammates were humiliated by a story headlined "High rank, low grades" that appeared on Page 1 of The Boston Globe. The paper had obtained grades of players through an unnamed source, and the grades were, to be kind, not good.

The story led to Calipari inserting a colorful adjective between "Boston" and "Globe," and to players getting all sorts of abuse, including chants of "Hooked on Phonics," at St. Bonaventure. Memorably, Sports Illustrated ran a story called "UMess," referring to Calipari as the "apotheosis of the ambitious, Armani-wrapped basketball coach" and his players as "academic snorkelers."

***

Both teams have known their periods of historic struggle. UMass had 11 straight losing seasons from the late '70s through the late '80s, while Harvard, before Amaker, had 11 straight coaches with losing records.

In a two-season stretch at its basketball nadir, UMass somehow managed to lose 29 straight games. That streak of woe was finally ended on Feb. 2, 1980 with a 67-44 win -- over Harvard.

The last time the schools played before yesterday's coffee break was on Dec. 27, 1991, when the Minutemen posted a 98-63 win at the long-forgotten Abdow's Classic in Springfield. That game featured two points off the bench from freshman Derek Kellogg. The win was one of 30 the Minutemen would post that season, a year in which UMass returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 30 years.

UMass would make it for seven straight seasons, commemorated by seven white banners hanging in the south side of the Mullins Center. After the last banner (1998), there is a palpable space for another one, and then a maroon NIT banner commemorating last year's run. There is no question what color UMass is looking to hang in that space.

***

Harvard can claim Jeremy Lin of the Houston Rockets in the NBA. UMass has Marcus Camby, still going somehow with the New York Knicks at age 38 in his 16th year. Tuesday, UMass announced that Camby's No. 21 jersey will be retired by the school in January.