It might not exactly be the same Final Four that he experienced four years ago, but Derek Kellogg will certainly take it.
In 2008, as an assistant coach to head coach John Calipari at Memphis, Kellogg helped the Tigers reach the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. Led by star and eventual NBA point guard Derrick Rose, that team made the national championship game, where it ultimately lost to Kansas in overtime.
The following season, Kellogg took the head coaching job at UMass, where his Minutemen struggled for his first three seasons at the helm. But this season, all of that has changed.
After being predicted to finish 12th in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, UMass has finally broken through, winning 25 games, including three consecutive and difficult road games in the National Invitation Tournament which have earned the team a spot in the semifinals tonight on the big stage of Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Despite a wide disparity in talent, Kellogg said that he sees similarities between his Memphis squad that finished the 2008 season with a 38-2 record and this year’s UMass team in both of its respective Final Four runs.
“The biggest similarity is the tightness of the team, the kind of brotherhood that these guys have,” Kellogg said. “They really enjoy being around each other, practices are fun and energetic even this late in the season, and I thought the year at Memphis when we went to the Final Four, it was very similar in that the guys have a little edge, there was a mission and they enjoyed each other’s company.”
As unpredictable as this NIT run has been for UMass, it’s been just as impressive.
After falling in the A-10 tournament semifinals to St. Bonaventure, the Minutemen didn’t hang their heads. Instead, they’ve reeled off three straight road victories against Mississippi State, Seton Hall and Drexel – all teams once considered bubble teams for the NCAA tournament – to get to MSG tonight.
“They wanted to keep playing, they believed that it could happen and they really stuck together as a team,” Kellogg said. “All of the hard work that they put in throughout the year and even over the summer is starting to pay off now in the type of condition we’re in.”
Awaiting UMass in New York is Stanford, a team that has some history playing the Minutemen in the postseason. In 1991, the Cardinal beat UMass in the NIT semifinals at MSG before the Minutemen knocked them off in back-to-back NCAA tournaments in 1995 and 1996.
This season, the Cardinal finished seventh in the Pac-12 in a down year for the conference that saw it get just one bid to the NCAA tournament. As the No. 3 seed in its region of the NIT bracket, Stanford put together three straight home victories against Cleveland State, Illinois State and Nevada to advance to the semifinals.
Kellogg said he’s been impressed watching them on tape and said that the Cardinal’s season has been very comparable to UMass’ campaign.
“They’ve really gotten better as the season’s gone on,” Kellogg said. “They have a lot of young guys that are continuing to improve and I think they’ve finally started to put it all together, kind of like we have, as the postseason has begun.”
Like the Minutemen, Stanford’s lineup is littered with underclassmen. With the exception of senior big man Josh Owens, the Cardinal’s big contributors are all underclassmen, including freshman guard Chasson Randle, who leads the team in scoring with 13.9 points per game and a scorching 43.8 percentage from 3-point territory.
Inside, Stanford also likes to mix it up with Owens, who averages 11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, and sophomore guard/forward Anthony Brown, who averages 7.7 points and 3.9 boards per contest. UMass will also have to be weary of sophomore guard Aaron Bright, who averages 11.6 points per game with the help of his 43.3 shooting percentage from 3-point land.
“Their guard play is very good and they’re young,” Kellogg said. “They have a front line like a lot of Pac-12 teams with good size and can beat you on the boards with good athletes. It’s going to be a tough contest for us where we can’t let them beat us on the boards and get off a lot of 3-pointers.”
The game will be a good test for UMass guard Chaz Williams against Randle, who made the Pac 12 All-Freshman team this season. Williams appears to have stepped up his game in the postseason, averaging 22.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists in the team’s three NIT games, giving the Minutemen a huge lift.
“He’s really learning the position and is starting to master that point guard spot,” Kellogg said. “His decision-making is way, way better than it was at the beginning of the year. He’s become a better leader and he continues to improve in every single game.
“And that’s what I think has been good as we continue to play is that he’s improving as our team’s improving which bodes well for the rest of the year and also the future,” he added.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Madison Square Garden for tonight’s game, which will be nationally televised on ESPN2. The winner will take on either Washington or Minnesota in Thursday’s championship game.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MDC_Hewitt.