Massachusetts fans have had to bear recent struggles, but it appears the men’s basketball team is finally starting to give reason for hope for a return to prominence.
Ever since I arrived to the University of Massachusetts in the fall of 2008, I’ve heard one wish continuously uttered by UMass sports fans: “I hope the men’s basketball team somehow earns a trip to the NCAA tournament.”
This season was not supposed to inspire hope for that wish coming true.
After losing Anthony Gurley, their top scorer and best player, it seemed like a transition year for the Minutemen. A new point guard, a new offensive scheme and the departure of a key assistant coach in Vance Walberg were obstacles that were considered difficult to surmount without taking some bruises.
And yet, that’s not been the case.
UMass is currently 3-2 in the Atlantic 10 and 14-5 overall, with both records placing the Minutemen in the top echelon of the conference. While there is still over a third of the season left to play, it’s hard to ignore the possible path the Minutemen are headed on this spring.
Maybe fans are jumping the gun, but when the prominent sport at your university struggles for a period of time and then gives reason for excitement, you tend to get ahead of yourself.
As an institution with such a rich history in men’s basketball, it’s been difficult to the watch the valleys UMass has fallen into the last decade. Even when the Travis Ford era hit a crescendo in the 2007-08 season, it was in the National Invitational Tournament, a step down from the level the Minutemen were accustomed to playing at in the 90s.
That’s not to say reaching the NIT wouldn’t be a success for UMass this season. It would be a significant step up from how the Minutemen have finished the past three years.
There were signs of an improved program brewing at the beginning of last season. UMass began the campaign with seven consecutive wins, including an exciting season-opener at the Mullins Center that saw the Minutemen overcome a 22-point deficit.
Then, UMass came back to Earth. Hard. A loss to Boston College began a difficult stretch of four-straight losses, the first of three four-loss streaks.
So far this season, the Minutemen have not purchased their ticket for the rollercoaster ride. In fact, UMass started the year hot again with four consecutive wins and aside from isolated losses, has kept the winning ways going.
What’s somewhat surprising of how the Minutemen are winning is their enormous success at home this year, posting a 10-0 record. It’s not as if the Mullins Center is rocking every game night, especially during winter recess when the majority of UMass students are home enjoying the holidays.
Sure, some of the wins are attributed to the lack of strong competition the Minutemen faced in the first half of the season. But even in the A-10, the toughest conference outside the powerhouses, the Minutemen have picked up early victories.
In the middle of last week, the A-10 had 11 of its 14 teams ranked in the top 100 of the RPI, more than any other conference. It’s safe to say, the real test for UMass is on the horizon.
Being a part of March Madness is what fans want, but they shouldn’t be disappointed if the Minutemen miss the Big Dance this year. This team is still relatively young, with two of their best players – Chaz Williams and Raphiael Putney – only in their sophomore year.
It probably won’t be a drastic turnaround, but the building blocks are in place and the Minutemen are starting to conjure up excitement that has recently eluded not only the program, but the entire university as a whole.
It’s taken some patience, but UMass is starting to get there.
Jay Asser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed on Twitter @MDC_Asser.