UMass men’s basketball enters 2013-14 season with heightened expectations
It’s finally time.
In the month and a half since official practices started in late September, the buzz and energy surrounding the Massachusetts men’s basketball team has continued to grow.
And with Sunday’s season opener against Boston College only three days away, UMass can finally put all the preseason hype behind it and focus on playing the games.
“I just wanna say we’re anxious,” UMass senior forward Sampson Carter said. “You know, I mean, we’ve been battling. This has been a long preseason and you know everyone’s been battling hard against each other.”
Sunday’s opener at TD Garden in Boston will finally end a grueling 45-day preseason schedule of 30 practices. That’s a long grind for the Minutemen, who have had to deal with the bitter taste of a first round National Invitation Tournament exit last season after being a bubble team to get into the NCAA Tournament.
Even with the disappointing finish to last season, the hype surrounding this year’s squad is at a level comparable to the glory days of the 1990s, when UMass made it to seven consecutive NCAA Tournaments. The Minutemen were selected to finish fourth in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, and several, if not all, media outlets have them at least as a team to watch for to make the NCAA Tournament to begin the season.
But expectations are nothing new to this team, which had similar postseason aspirations at this time last season.
“Expectations are really what you make of them,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “We’re kind of just taking it day-by-day and trying to improve and get better. With the schedule, I think you can’t look at any expectations; just who you’re playing, take that game and move onto the next one.”
With the exception of the four incoming freshmen, the core group of players from last year’s 21-win team is mostly back. Standout senior point guard Chaz Williams, who has been pegged as an early candidate for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, returns after a busy offseason in which he first decided not to forego his senior year and enter the NBA Draft, then declined a professional offer to play in Turkey in late August.
Williams will join a senior cast of Carter and swingman Raphiael Putney. Juniors Maxie Esho and Cady Lalanne as well as sophomore Trey Davis are back in the fold, and UMass has a welcome addition in the form of sophomore transfer Derrick Gordon, who figures to play a large role this season after sitting out last year due to NCAA transfer rules following his move from Western Kentucky.
By all accounts, the Minutemen have the pieces necessary to make a deep run this season, one that Kellogg hopes will be full of completing lofty goals the team has set out for itself.
“We talk about cutting down nets all the time,” Kellogg said. “You have to have something that you’re dreaming of and so winning the Atlantic 10 is one of those goals. Making the NCAA Tournament is one of those goals. For me as a coach, we have those long-term goals.”
It won’t be easy for the Minutemen to snap their 15-year tournament drought, as they made it a point in the offseason to strengthen their non-conference schedule, something that’s held them back in recent years.
Going into “Selection Sunday” the previous two seasons, UMass had outside chances to get into the field of 68 as a bubble team, mostly due for its lack of quality wins and low RPI standing.
This season, though, that shouldn’t be the case, as the Minutemen added several strong BCS-conference foes to their schedule, including BC, LSU, Nebraska and Florida State.
“It’s going to help us get over the hump because we now have a schedule where people are going to say, ‘Oh, OK, they have some big schools,’” Carter said. “So, now there’s going to be big tests and we’re going to be on a different level now, so now we have to live up to what people are saying.”
Once UMass gets into conference play, its schedule won’t soften up much.
While the A-10 historically hasn’t been a strong conference, its recent success in sending teams deep into the NCAA Tournament has helped boost its status among top-tier conferences.
Of the three remaining A-10 teams that made last year’s Big Dance – Virginia Commonwealth, La Salle and Saint Louis – the Minutemen will play all three at home this season. Those three schools also make up the top three in the preseason A-10 poll.
In turn, Kellogg is hoping his team’s home schedule can bring an atmosphere to the Mullins Center that has had glimpses of potential in previous years, but hasn’t quite maintained consistency over the course of a season.
“I want the students to be excited about our team and what we’re doing,” he said. “I think if you look at our schedule, it’s the best schedule, especially the best home schedule we’ve had in here in how many years? Fifteen? Twenty? So if people can’t get excited about this team and the schedule that we have, then my question is, ‘When do you get excited?’
“So I’m looking forward to big crowds and the students and people in the town getting excited.”
It won’t take long to get an idea of where this UMass squad is heading, as it opens up its season with in-state rival BC. It’s the first time that UMass has opened up its season against a BCS-conference opponent in Kellogg’s tenure, something that can give the team an added incentive to be spot-on from the opening tip.
“(It’s) always nice,” Carter said. “Because you work so hard from that last final game last year, through the spring and then through the summer and then through the preseason and all through that time you’re thinking about your next opponent the next season. Man, BC is the first (team) on our list and they’re our target. That’s all we see.”
Patrick Strohecker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MDC_Strohecker.