Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg hears the predictions and the expectations.
This season, more so than previous ones, it’s hard not to. Several sources rank Kellogg’s team near the top of the Atlantic 10. They’re predicting the team to be the best it’s been in more than a decade, and some are even picking the team to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 14 years.
Kellogg understands it all. After all, he was part of some of the UMass teams of the 1990s that made annual trips to the Big Dance and he was an assistant coach at Memphis during its national championship runs in the early 2000s.
And after an unpredictable run last season that saw the Minutemen catch fire late, win 25 games and reach the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament, the 2012-13 version is chock-full of them.
But Kellogg isn’t ready to heap such expectations onto his squad just yet.
“I’m not naive, I’d love to be an NCAA tournament-level program and coach and that’s what I think you coach at the college level for,” Kellogg said. “But I don’t want to put those expectations and put added pressure on us because I think the pressure is to prepare, and as we prepare, I think we have a chance to be a very good basketball team this year.”
Nearly all of last year’s squad has returned. UMass has brought back nine lettermen, including four starters, from last season’s team who are poised to make another deep run late into March.
The most notable returnee is junior point guard Chaz Williams, who is receiving plenty of preseason praise himself. In his debut season with the Minutemen last year, the 5-foot-9 Brooklyn, N.Y., native averaged 16.9 points and 6.2 assists per game and was the constant heartbeat of the team during its late-season stretch run.
William was named to the all-conference first team and is among the early candidates for conference player of the year. Without question, Williams will be called upon to put together an encore if UMass is going to make a run at the NCAA Tournament.
Like Kellogg, Williams isn’t seeing the expectations as added pressure.
“I feel like that’s only making us better (and) making us work harder,” Williams said. “We’re just trying to get better every day. You can take it as pressure, but most of us just take it as playing basketball.”
Like any season, though, UMass faces some major questions.
The team will look to deal with the loss of former center Sean Carter, who graduated last year. UMass has a number of options at its disposal, including starting sophomore Cady Lalanne, who returns after missing most of last season with a foot injury, as well as mixing in Maxie Esho and freshmen big men Tyler Bergantino and Izzy Freeman.
“Can Cady or Tyler or Izzy hold down the paint the way Sean did? That’s going to be a huge thing for us,” Kellogg said. “If we get that player, if we can get someone that can clog it on offense and defense, then we have a chance to be a legitimate team. If that doesn’t happen and come to fruition, then we’re going to struggle some.”
Outside of Williams, Kellogg will also be looking for the other three returning starters to play more consistently. Jesse Morgan, Terrell Vinson and Raphiael Putney all showed what they’re capable of throughout last season, but disappeared at some points.
Vinson, a senior, really turned it on towards the end of last season, and probably had his best performance of the season in the NIT quarterfinals against Drexel in which he engineered a memorable come-from-behind win to push the Minutemen to a trip to Madison Square Garden. Kellogg wants to see more of that Vinson this season.
“He was a rock solid guy that came up with the tough, big plays at the end of a lot of games, and he really had a good NIT run,” Kellogg said. “So I’d say he’s the guy I’m really looking to the most for some of those tough baskets.”
Road to the Big Dance
To get to the NCAA tournament this season, UMass will have to go through one of its toughest schedules in recent memory.
The Minutemen have 12 teams on their schedule that competed in a postseason tournament last season, and the potential for as many as 14 depending on who they end up playing in the early-season Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament.
UMass has a somewhat easy non-conference slate that includes games against four teams from the Mid-American Conference, which is traditionally not a highly-competitive basketball conference, and games against Elon and Northeastern as well.
The Minutemen will certainly have their hands full when they hit their conference schedule. They will have to face A-10 newcomers Virginia Commonwealth and Butler in addition to the difficult road tests against St. Louis, VCU, St. Bonaventure and Xavier. The Minutemen were 2-6 on the road during conference play last season.
UMass is looking to ignore the hype and expectations though – ones that are as high as they’ve been since the program’s memorable runs in the 1990s.
“Coach does a good job of humbling us, humbling guys and letting us know that we have to work as hard as anybody else in the country,” Morgan said. “We’re not sneaking up on teams anymore. They’re going to be coming at us and we have to be on our keys and we have to go at guys and play our game.”
“We just have to stick to our script and stay consistent throughout the year,” Williams said. “As long as we continue to play UMass basketball, I see no reason why we can’t make the NCAA Tournament.”
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.