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Chiarelli: UMass has chance to revitalize fanbase

On Sunday, at 3 p.m., the waiting game finally ends.

Evan Sahagian/Daily Collegian

For fans of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team, college basketball purists and those sick of the never-ending preseason hype machine, basketball is finally back. Playing on the TD Garden parquet in front of fans from all over the region should feel like Christmas morning, the culmination of excitement and anticipation.

Yet the focus for many is not the beginning. Instead, it’s the end.

I was sitting with a close friend at lunch one afternoon when the topic of the conversation turned to the state of UMass basketball.

“I’m really hoping to see an NCAA Tournament game this year,” he said unprovoked. It was a harmless statement, but one that’s permeating around campus this season. Now, more than ever, students and fans expect the Minutemen to take that next step and return a program to the highest pedestal of college basketball.

The “college experience” is better when students have something to rally behind. Athletics are an easy choice and offer a common outlet for excitement. UMass is still searching for that as it tries to expand as a national power within the NCAA.

The Minutemen haven’t reached the NCAA Tournament in 15 years. The last time the University produced a legitimate contender in a major sport – football’s 2006 Division 1-AA appearance in the national championship — MySpace was still a rising star in the world of social media.

Through 21 games at the Division I level, UMass football stands at an abysmal 2-21. Just one of those wins came at home and virtually no students partook in the two-hour bus ride to soak it all in. Hockey is in the midst of a changeover and may be another season or two away from truly contending. If not for field hockey, the University’s foothold in the national landscape of collegiate athletics would be virtually nonexistent.

Basketball offers students at UMass and fans in the surrounding region a chance to care, a reason to finally get excited.

This team is plenty talented.

The Minutemen have won at least 20 games the past two seasons while finishing at 9-7 in the A-10 both years. Chaz Williams, one of the program’s most prolific players and a contender for Player of the Year within the conference, is in his senior year and averaged 15.5 points per game a year ago. So too, are Sampson Carter and Raphiael Putney, two critical role players who are no strangers to heavy minutes under coach Derek Kellogg.

“We just know this is our last year,” Putney said before the season. “Last year we just didn’t finish a couple games that we needed to win. So this year we’re more mature and we know what we need to do to win now.”

The team faces high expectations and, to a certain extent, pressure. A year ago, the idea of making noise within the NCAA Tournament was feasible before the season, but it wasn’t until the final weeks of the season that the idea became real.

“I don’t even want to think about the pressure,” Carter said. “We try not to think about any of that.”

Some of that “pressure” is self-inflicted. Unlike last year’s questionable out-of-conference schedule, UMass isn’t holding back. Games against BC, LSU, Florida State and Brigham Young are a conscious effort to play upper echelon talent and prove to the selection committee this team can run with the nation’s best.

“We have to come with a tournament mindset from early,” Williams said. “We’re playing against tournament-like teams so we have to come ready like it’s a tournament game. We can’t come in with (any) mistakes.”

It’s imperative the Minutemen also find an improved version of Cady Lalanne and utilize Derrick Gordon effectively. Traditionally, UMass’ greatest struggles have come within the half-court offense. A traditional, hulking post presence like Lalanne and a dynamic slasher such as Gordon alleviate Williams of carrying the team for stretches at a time.

Ultimately, the current collection of Minutemen won’t be viewed in terms of the usual buzz words like progress or potential. There’s been two years of that. Now, it simply comes down to results. There’s a hunger throughout campus for a winning team to cheer for and a hunger within the locker room to deliver notoriety to a program that’s been missing since the days of John Calipari and Marcus Camby.

“People always try to say, ‘What’s my best attribute or what can I do on the floor,’” Gordon said in early October.

“And I say honestly, a lot of people don’t say it, but I’m a winner. I’m the person that’s gonna do whatever it takes for my team to win.”

The mindset to win is in place, a crucial ingredient for a team set to embark on a pivotal year for the future of UMass basketball. Now, it’s time to produce, time to prove this is a team capable of playing deep into March.

It’s time to dance.

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at mchiarel@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.

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