Coming off its appearance in the National Invitation Tournament Final Four a year ago and facing a Division II opponent in its first exhibition game, one would think the Massachusetts men’s basketball team would use the contest as a tune-up and launching pad into the regular season.
But with the suspension of three players for the game – including two in the backcourt – and being largely outplayed in the paint, UMass coach Derek Kellogg had a clear message for his team.
‘Listen, last year was last year. This is this year now and we can pretty much tear up all the press clippings and realize we got a lot of work to do,’” Kellogg said.
The Minutemen failed to break away from American International on Saturday afternoon – never leading by more than seven and trailing for much of the first half —but managed to carve out an 87-82 victory at the Mullins Center.
Starting junior shooting guard Jesse Morgan, freshman backup point guard Trey Davis and sophomore center Cady Lalanne did not suit up for the contest after violating team rules. Kellogg would not discuss the specifics of the rules that were broken or how long the players would be held out.
With Morgan and Davis inactive, point guard Chaz Williams was forced to play 37 minutes, only taking a brief rest in the second half after cramping in his left leg. Williams led all scorers with 24 points — 20 coming in the second half — as the junior took control of the game down the stretch.
UMass only dressed eight players in the game, with Williams and Freddie Riley serving as the only two guards.
The suspension offered a blessing in disguise for Riley, who scored 21 points and hit 6-of-10 shots from 3-point range in place of Morgan in the starting lineup. Riley also played a team-high 38 minutes.
Riley’s 2011-12 season was largely a letdown as the junior never could find consistency in his shot. But he said Saturday’s performance was good for his confidence level heading into the season.
“I felt more like myself because last season I didn’t really shoot too well so this is good for confidence for me to shoot well and it really did feel like I was back to my normal playing ways,” Riley said.
The exhibition game serves as the Minutemen’s final tune-up before their regular season opener on Nov. 13 against Harvard.
The Yellow Jackets took a 1-point lead with eight minutes, 17 seconds left in the contest, but UMass strung together an 11-3 run to open up a 78-71 advantage with just over five minutes remaining to hold on for the win.
AIC outscored the Minutemen, 30-28, in the paint, and had 17 second-chance points compared to UMass’ nine.
“I thought our rebounding was porous at times and our half-court defense,” Kellogg said. “We just weren’t physical enough, that’s really what bothered me the most.”
But while the Minutemen struggled in areas, Kellogg admitted he was glad these mistakes occurred in an exhibition game rather than a regular season affair.
“It’s great that we’re having this conversation after our first exhibition game and not halfway through the year,” Kellogg said.
AIC coach compares Kellogg to Calhoun
In his postgame press conference, AIC coach Art Luptowski was asked about continuing to play UMass more in the future.
Luptowski was very appreciative of Kellogg making the decision to play the Yellow Jackets, as AIC is located in Springfield, Kellogg’s hometown.
Luptowski compared Kellogg’s decision to Jim Calhoun’s for UConn to play the Yellow Jackets in the regular season, as Calhoun paid tribute to his alma mater, AIC.
“Derek Kellogg, in his own way, is a young Jim Calhoun,” Luptowski said. “He’s a stand-up guy. Derek’s gonna give the game to AIC because it’s the right thing to do.”
Kellogg chuckled when asked to respond to the comparison, saying that it might be too early for him to be mentioned to Calhoun, a Hall-of-Fame coach who recently retired.
“I think Jim Calhoun obviously is a legend in the game, so anybody who would compare you to him even in the same breath is probably a little premature,” Kellogg said.
Luptowski didn’t stop with the praise for the Minutemen, saying that UMass is better than the Huskies. The Yellow Jackets lost to UConn, 78-63, on Thursday in an exhibition game.
“No disrespect to UConn, but I think at the end of the day, UMass is a better basketball team,” Luptowski said.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.