When five incoming freshmen arrived to the Massachusetts men’s basketball team last year, they brought with them high expectations and hopes of a return to prominence. One year later, four of those players are now sophomores and the hype surrounding their arrival has quieted down.
Nevertheless, Freddie Riley, Sampson Carter, Terrell Vinson, Javorn Farrell and Raphael Putney are hungry to remind everyone that the promise is still there.
“We got bigger, stronger, faster, smarter,” Vinson said. “We’ve worked a lot harder in the preseason than we did last year.”
Though the freshman class was brilliant in spots last season, the rookies also struggled at times in a year full of growing pains.
Entering their second season, the players are no longer regarded by UMass head coach Derek Kellogg as newcomers, but instead as key players who will need to contribute consistently. In order for that to happen, however, Kellogg recognizes that they will all need to bring their games to another level.
“If all the sophomores can make that jump and really help us, we could surprise some people,” Kellogg said.
While having a year under their belts helps in terms of playing basketball, it also allows the players to know what to expect as student athletes at a large university.
“My teammates and I feel a lot more comfortable because we’ve been here for a year, so we kind of know what to expect,” Riley said. “Last year, it was different for me being here because of balancing classes and practices and everything, but now we feel a lot better.”
Riley, a 6-foot-5 guard with a smooth shooting stroke, is a perfect example of the potential possessed by the second-year class. Last season, he averaged 9.3 points, ranking second among the freshmen and fourth overall (19.3) on the team in minutes .
Riley was a weapon from beyond the arc, where he led the Minutemen with 2.3 3-pointers per game. In fact, beyond the 3-point line seemed to be one of his favorite places from which to shoot – 63 of his 93 made field goals came from that area.
At times last year, Kellogg questioned his shot selection and contentedness to hoist long-range 3-pointers. Heading into this season, however, shooting doesn’t seem to be Riley’s priority.
“Mainly, I just want to focus on playing hard defense and working on my defense, just like the rest of the team,” Riley said.
It didn’t take long for Riley to showcase his quick scoring ability this year, as he dropped a career-high 28 points to spur a 22-point comeback win against Rider in the season opener last Friday. In the second half alone, he scored 23 points, draining 5-of-6 treys.
Another sophomore with great offensive promise is Vinson, who was UMass’ top-ranked recruit last season.
As a freshman, the Baltimore, Md. native started all 32 games, averaging 9.6 points and 5.4 rebounds in 25 minutes per game. He also recorded two double-doubles against Grambling and Baylor.
After Vinson and Riley, however, the remaining sophomores in Farrell and Carter contributed less with their ability to fill up a stat sheet and more with their hustle and versatility, reasons why Kellogg played them frequently last year.
So far this season, Carter has started both the exhibition tilt and the opener. Kellogg, however, said that when Farrell is healthy, he’ll have to make a decision between the two for the starting spot.
“Sampson’s played well,” Kellogg said. “He looks like he’s matured from a gangly freshman that wanted to shoot all threes to a kid that’s listening, put some weight on, [gotten] a little tougher, driving the ball to the rim, playing better defense.”
Perhaps the most intriguing player of the freshman class from last year is Putney, who redshirted the 2009-10 campaign.
Despite his slim, 6-foot-8, 180-pound physique, Putney can play various positions on the court and has drawn lofty comparisons from Kellogg and the rest of the coaching staff.
“His wingspan is like he can cover half the court,” Kellogg said. “I’ll just have to figure out ways to use him without really wearing him down or tiring him out before he puts weight on.”
Putney displayed his athleticism in UMass’ 83-60 exhibition win over Brandies early in November. On two occasions in transition, Putney slammed home alley-oop passes, exciting the Mullins Center crowd.
Overall, the Minutemen seem like they have a desire to prove they have made strides from last season. After being picked to finish 11th in the A-10 by coaches and selected members of the media, the sophomores in particular feel they are already being overlooked in only their second year.
“It motivates us, but at the same time, we don’t really worry about it too much because we know how hard we’ve been working and what we’re capable of,” Riley said.
Jay Asser can be reached at email@example.com.