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November 22, 2017

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November 16, 2017

Hewitt: UMass hoops left out of Big Dance again, but best is still to come

Cade Belisle/Collegian File Photo

If you’re a fan of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team, it must have been tough watching this past weekend’s NCAA Tournament games.

That’s because, for the 15th season in a row, the Minutemen were left to watching the Big Dance from their couches. What’s worse, though, is that some believe this season was the closest they’ve been to going dancing since they last did so in 1998.

One more quality win here, one less bad loss there – some say – and this season could have taken on an entirely different storyline. From fans to coaches and players on the team, UMass was oh so close from tasting it.

Instead, it was once again back to the National Invitation Tournament, where the Minutemen saw a once promising season come to a painful conclusion in the first round last Wednesday night.

After a season like this one, it’s fair for fans to chalk the result up as a disappointment. There were high hopes for UMass after a magical run last season that saw it come out of nowhere and reach the NIT semifinals. Many believed the NCAA Tournament drought would finally come to an end this season, but it didn’t happen.

You can be disappointed, sure, but when you’re done doing that, take a breath and realize how much progress this team has been able to make.

I know what you were thinking, that the Minutemen finished with four less wins this season than last and couldn’t match their NIT run from a year ago, that calling that progress would be irresponsible. But let’s not let one bad game in the NIT make us lose sight of everything else.

Let us consider for a moment that UMass lost its second-leading scorer and probably its best defender in Jesse Morgan to a torn ACL in its conference opener back in January. That loss has not been stressed enough. Without him, the Minutemen were forced to play with just three guards, with a freshman being the only one off the bench, and just nine healthy players in the rotation.

Now let us also consider that, despite having no Morgan and playing with just nine players, UMass somehow got back to the Atlantic 10 Tournament semifinals, where some believed it was just a win against Virginia Commonwealth away from making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large. And let’s also not forget that the Minutemen took the Rams to the wire in that one, and that if a few bounces went their way, there would have been no NIT.

We can play the “What if?” game all day long, but the fact of the matter is this: For the first time in a long time, UMass fans had reason to tune in to the NCAA Tournament selection show this season with some hope that their team’s name could possibly be called.

And if you ask me, if you’re disappointed in a season ending in the NIT just one season after being happy to be there, that’s progress within itself.

Of course, there will be those who won’t be satisfied until UMass actually makes the Big Dance, no matter what. And that’s fine, because fans shouldn’t have to be satisfied with their team being a perennial NIT squad.

But don’t lose faith now, because the best is still yet to come.

Next season, while UMass will lose two valuable pieces in Freddie Riley and Terrell Vinson, it also returns some of the best talent in the Atlantic 10.

All-conference point guard Chaz Williams and starting big men Cady Lalanne and Sampson Carter will be back and a year better. Presumably, Morgan will be fully healthy and back in the lineup and transfer guard Derrick Gordon will likely be in the mix for a lot of playing time.

That doesn’t even count returnees Raphiael Putney, Maxie Esho, Trey Davis and Tyler Bergantino, as well as incoming freshmen Zach Coleman, Seth Berger and Clyde Santee, who will all contribute to a team that will once again enter the season among the favorites to win the conference.

So, while you try to remove that sour taste in your mouth from this season’s ending, remember that next season proves to be even brighter. After all, that’s the beauty of sports anyway; that when one season ends, you can move on to the next.

The saying, “There’s always next year,” as cliché as it sounds, is also true.

So be disappointed now, but remember the best is surely yet to come.

Stephen Hewitt can be reached at shewitt@student.umass.edu and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.

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