Five years ago, Massachusetts men’s basketball senior Freddie Riley was on his way to play pick-up basketball with his friends when his cell phone started ringing.
Riley looked down and saw a phone number he didn’t recognize. At that time, Riley had been getting a lot of calls from unknown numbers, as college coaches tried to sway him to play for their respective programs. Riley, who previously committed to Florida Atlantic during his senior year of high school, reopened his recruitment after the Owls endured a coaching change and had been shining on the court while playing at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia.
But this phone call was different. On the other end was a man getting his first crack at being a head coach and was trying to bring his program back to national relevance.
That man was UMass coach Derek Kellogg.
“He just told me he had just gotten a job at UMass and I was the first player he was recruiting,” Riley said.
Meanwhile, Terrell Vinson was also attracting the attention of Kellogg while at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore.
Kellogg had a simple message to both players: Take a leap of faith and be part of the restoration of a program that was once at the center of the college basketball world just a decade before.
Riley and Vinson signed on and the rest is history.
The pair of seniors will be honored before Thursday’s tip against Butler for Senior Night, as the duo partakes in what could be their final game on the Mullins Center floor. UMass could play at home again depending on its playoff picture.
Kellogg says he owes a lot to Riley and Vinson, who were members of his first and most important recruiting class, which signified the start of his bid to bring the program back into the national spotlight.
“It wasn’t an easy decision for them (to come to UMass) because they both actually had quite a few schools recruiting them,” Kellogg said, “and for them to buy into what I was saying was gonna happen here.”
What did he say was going to happen?
“Although maybe it wouldn’t happen immediately, I thought that we would be able to reinvigorate the fan base,” he said. “I thought that we would get to a point where we were competing for postseason play and the ultimate goal of being in the NCAA tournament.”
Thursday wraps that entire vision into one, 40-minute game, and is fitting that it falls on the night when Riley and Vinson, two of the players who took a chance on UMass and Kellogg and helped begin the program’s journey back to relevance, will be honored for their playing careers as Minutemen.
“I didn’t think it would ever happen like that,” Vinson said. “I don’t really know how it happened like that.”
Thursday’s matchup with the Bulldogs (22-7, 9-5 Atlantic 10) is expected to have a large crowd and provide UMass (18-9, 8-6 A-10) with arguably its biggest chance to leap into the NCAA tournament bubble discussion and – coupled with a win in its season finale at Rhode Island on Saturday – give the Minutemen a chance at a first round bye in next week’s A-10 Tournament.
But Senior Night is more than just a crucial game for UMass’ playoff hopes; it also draws attention to the different journeys Vinson and Riley had while donning their Maroon and White colors.
Vinson has been a consistent, reliable option throughout his career. Last Saturday marked his 122nd career start at UMass, which passed Jim McCoy (1988-1992) for tops in the program’s history. His 1,207 points also rank him 24th all-time and he’s just the 20th Minuteman to have at least 1,000 points and 600 rebounds during his career.
Meanwhile, Riley entered UMass as strictly a scorer but will be leaving a complete player. The Ocala, Fla., native has bought in on the defensive end – something he admits he didn’t do previously in his career – while also taking smarter and more advised shots. He currently sits sixth all-time at UMass with 215 3-pointers made.
“The freshman year me would be very proud with the way I’ve matured,” Riley said.
Riley said his mother and sister will be in attendance. This will be the second time Riley’s mother, Norma, will make the trip to Amherst, he said, and the first time his sister has seen him play since high school.
“That’s big for me,” Riley said of his family coming to support him.
It’s been a steady, and not always glamorous, ride for the seniors while at UMass. Their first season (2009-10) ended sub-.500 at 12-20, followed by a 15-15 showing the following year. It wasn’t until last year’s massive spark to 25-12 that the Minutemen started to make some noise in the national picture with a trip to the National Invitation Tournament Final Four.
“On the court, it’s been a little up and down,” Vinson said, “definitely having a better ending than the start.”
And with one possible final game left at the Mullins Center – and arguably the seniors’ biggest game of their careers – Riley is confident he’ll be able to put the emotions aside after the opening tip.
“It’s an emotional game, but I also know how much weight this game carries,” he said, “so I think I’ll be able to – once the ceremony and all that is done – put all that aside and just play.”
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.