Chiarelli: For at least this instant, UMass basketball back in national fold
What did you do when you woke up today?
Did you roll over and press snooze on your alarm clock? Or should I say, rolled over and unlocked your smartphone, tapping the screen a few times to keep the world from becoming real for at least a few minutes?
Or did you do as I did, immediately opening your favorite social media app to make sure you didn’t miss any news?
Everything’s instant. It’s nearly impossible to go an hour without at least a brief glance at your phone. Computers, which come in all forms these days, are much a part of the daily routine as brushing your teeth or tying your shoes. The way we process information and analyze and process news is at a lightning-fast pace. One blink, and everything changes.
Is college basketball all that different? Take a look at the national scene, you know, the teams at the top of the rankings plastered across ESPN. The programs – Duke, Kansas, Kentucky – rarely suffer through down seasons, mainstays in a constantly changing sport.
The same can’t be said about the players. Last year, three freshmen were drafted within the first 10 picks of the NBA Draft. In 2012, three freshmen comprised the first three picks of the entire spectacle. Now, made-for-professional-basketball freshman stars such as Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker have become the poster children for the one-and-done. These types of players are becoming as much a fabric of the national college basketball scene as the pick and roll. If you blink, they’re gone in an instant.
Perhaps that’s what makes what Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg is building truly special.
UMass’ success – the freshly-minted champions of the 2013 Charleston Classic are currently beholders of a pristine 6-0 record and the No. 24 ranking in the most recent AP poll – has been both literally and figuratively a long time coming.
It’s been 5,481 days since the Minutemen last graced the Top 25 poll. That’s 15 years and two days, for those who are as bad at math as I am. The last time UMass mingled with basketball’s elite? Bill Clinton was still in office, Google was an infant (invented in 1998) and I was barely its superior, clocking in at the tender age of 4 years old.
For the last six seasons, Kellogg’s quietly built a foundation that a proud basketball program sorely lacked and a proud alumnus hoped to change. It’s been a long mountain to climb for someone who’s witnessed UMass’ basketball mortality rise and fall firsthand.
“That’s a long time, that’s a long time,” Kellogg said to reporters after the Charleston Classic on the prospect of becoming nationally ranked.
“As an alum and a guy who played there, that’s tough, tough to see. But I hope for the guys that, if we are, it’s a long time coming and they deserve it.”
In a world where recruits filter through national programs like water and individual star power is at an all-time high, the Minutemen are almost a throwback. The current starting lineup of Chaz Williams, Derrick Gordon, Sampson Carter, Raphiael Putney and Cady Lalanne has combined to play 382 collegiate games to date. UMass is loaded with veteran savvy and maturity, a skill it’ll have to rely on as it wades into uncharted waters.
The Minutemen have balance, too. Every starter is averaging double-digit scoring and the offense isn’t opting for low-percentage outside shooting. It’s the kind of balance and level-headed play that can win tough games.
It almost feels like UMass is the antithesis of everything the crème de la crème of college basketball is today. The faces of the program like Williams and Putney are players who have taken the lumps and dealt with the growing pains that come with a program rebuilding. There are no high-profile recruits jettisoning off to play professionally after just a year. As of now, they have fans believing that a “brotherhood” can shock the world.
And who knows, success is fleeting. The Minutemen are just six games into a grueling, arduous season. November greatness means little if it doesn’t translate into March success.
But for this day, and this week, UMass is back in the national fold. A team which has waited the better part of three seasons for this moment now appears in the same breath and on the same list as Duke and Kansas. Analysts have a reason to mention UMass once again and fans have a reason to cheer, an outlet for hope.
At least for this instant, the Minutemen are back.
Mark Chiarelli can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.