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Sellner: Time is now for UMass men’s basketball

What a difference a year makes.

Heading into the 2011-12 season, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team was the epitome of mediocrity at 15-15 and a team that lacked any real reason for optimism.

Maria Uminski/Collegian

A UMass trip to the National Invitation Tournament seemed more like a punch-line to a lame joke rather than a realistic objective.

But now, a year later, it’s like the Minutemen have undergone a major facelift. The days of the boring Minutemen of the dribble-drive offense that struggled against teams like Rider are history. Instead, the UMass “brotherhood” opted for alley-oops, 3-pointers and full-court pressure, turning games into track meets rather than running traditional half-court sets.

And with that new-found success, the Minutemen moved out of the category of sleeper and into the NCAA Tournament conversation.

Yes, that NCAA Tournament.

So can the much-improved UMass squad reach the sacred ground of college basketball?

All indications seem to be pointing that way. The time for the Minutemen is now.

This core of players could serve as the pioneers of UMass’ resurrection back into the national spotlight of college basketball and finally allow Amherst residents to experience a fraction of some of the fond memories that former-Minuteman Marcus Camby and former-coach John Calipari brought to the Mullins Center on a nightly basis, rather than reminisce about those days in bedtime tales to their children and grandchildren.

That’s what UMass is facing. This season extends beyond its final game. The Minutemen could be feeling the effects of the 2012-13 campaign for years to come.

A trip to the NCAA Tournament can completely transform a program. If the Minutemen were to make the tournament, it’d be similar to a high school student hitting his or her growth spurt and all of a sudden becoming popular: They came out of nowhere and all of a sudden more people notice them and want to hang out with them.

Recruits flock to tournament teams and crave the national spotlight tournament teams experience come March. Players want to be in the best possible place to showcase their talents for scouts, and tournament teams offer the best platform with increased television exposure and media coverage.

But wait, this is the Minutemen were talking about, right? Surely a UMass team can’t be on the same stage as the premier programs the country has to offer.

But I have a message for skeptics: It’s time to buy in.

The most obvious reason for optimism is the Minutemen’s experience.

After knocking off Temple in the Atlantic 10 Tournament in March 2011 and mercilessly marching its way through the NIT and into its Final Four, UMass was gaining valuable lessons on how to win, perhaps more so than it was racking up wins.

Had the Minutemen defeated eventual-A-10 champion St. Bonaventure in the A-10 Tournament Semi Finals, UMass could have been looking at an outside shot at reaching the Big Dance anyways with an at-large bid.

With four starters returning, another year settling in to the full-court-pressure system and a slew of young, role players, it’s reasonable to assume UMass will be better than it was a year ago.

UMass coach Derek Kellogg thinks that the experience factor will pay off, especially in conference play. The Minutemen finished with a less-than-stellar 9-7 record in A-10 play last season.

“I think we’ll be a much better team in January and February than we will be off the bat, even though we’re kind of experienced coming back,” Kellogg said. “I believe that we’re gonna get better as the year goes on and when those young guys and Cady (Lalanne)’s able to catch up and be what we think they can be, I think that’s when we’ll be a complete team, a good basketball team.”

Speaking of Lalanne, is there a more important factor for UMass, outside of Williams, heading into the season? The sophomore center returns for what could be his first full season after sitting out the majority of his rookie year with a foot injury.

If the Minutemen can get consistent production out of Lalanne in the paint, UMass can eliminate the randomness that its half court offense experiences at times when driving lanes to the basket are eliminated. At times last year, the Minutemen struggled in their half court sets after teams started taking away the fast break.

Lalanne says he’s ready for that responsibility, something former Minuteman Sean Carter, who graduated in the spring, couldn’t deliver on. Meanwhile, Lalanne shot 54.9 percent from the field a year ago in only 14 games. Had he been healthy for the entire year, UMass would have been in a better chance to make the tournament.

If Lalanne can build off his limited performance last year and take the next step in his development, the Minutemen’s offense would have another dimension it can beat teams with, one that it wasn’t fortunate to have last year.

But perhaps the most influential piece of the team’s NCAA Tournament puzzle has to be its style of play.

The up-tempo, full-court pressure gave teams fits last year not only in the A-10, but all over the country. That wasn’t just limited to the Minutemen, as Virginia Commonwealth, now a member of the A-10, has experienced great success running the same style, including a trip to the NCAA Final Four in 2011. In fact, Kellogg said before last year that his decision to switch to the full-court-pressure was greatly influenced by the play of the Rams and their ability to knock off prominent programs with it.

For UMass, this style fits more perfectly than Cinderella’s glass slipper. Depth and athleticism are the strengths of the team. They want to get out and run, not sit back and grind out possessions and the clock. They’d rather the game resemble more of a track meet than a half-court duel.

And if teams like VCU can find success with it, why can’t the Minutemen?

Williams says the press can overwhelm teams and even admitted that it messes with his own head during practice.

“It’s pretty difficult to handle,” Williams said. “When you’ve got five guys running at you and they’re pretty long and tall, it actually feels like seven guys running at you.”

The press is the trick UMass has up its sleeve when it goes up against the premier teams in the conference, like Temple, St. Louis, Butler and Saint Joseph’s amongst others.

Now before I get too ahead of myself, UMass making the NCAA Tournament isn’t a slam dunk, pun intended. Injuries could serve as the speed bump that shakes up the Minutemen’s march towards the Big Dance. After all, Javorn Farrell is sidelined for an extended amount of time with a leg injury, Jesse Morgan is coming off of an offseason wrist surgery, Sampon Carter missed almost all of last year with a hip injury and Tyler Bergantino was on a crutch at Wednesday’s practice after rolling his ankle earlier in the week.

But if the Minutemen can stay healthy and stick to its recipe, they might end up dancing all the way to the NCAA Tournament and put UMass basketball back on the map, somewhere it hasn’t been for quite some time.

And if it happens, the “brotherhood” could be bringing national relevance back to the Mullins Center, a place where it hasn’t been for a long, long time.

Game on.

Stephen Sellner can be reached at ssellner@student.umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner. 

 

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