UMass basketball snaps 16-year NCAA Tournament drought
It doesn’t matter that the Massachusetts men’s basketball team got put in Raleigh, N.C. It doesn’t matter that it is the No. 6 seed, or that it doesn’t quite know its opponent for Friday’s second-round matchup.
All that matters is that UMass is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 years.
“That was an emotional, great feeling,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “To see UMass pop up on the screen, it’s just a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication from our coaching staff and families. … It’s been an emotional time and we’re excited to be where we are.”
Since the Minutemen were eliminated from the Atlantic 10 Tournament on Friday night, they’ve been projected to be about an eight or nine seed. But, to be a No. 6 seed shows that UMass earned the respect that it sought from Day 1.
“We felt that (the committee) hasn’t been respecting us all year,” senior Chaz Williams said. “For them to give us a six seed, we felt like, ‘Wow, now they’re showing us a little bit of respect.’ But still, we have work to go out there and do.”
Despite entering Friday’s game as the higher seed, UMass is faced with one of the tougher challenges in the tournament: not knowing its first opponent.
The Minutemen will play the winner of the first-round game between Iowa and Tennessee, meaning that, unlike the majority of the teams in the field, they will only have two days to prepare for their second-round foe.
“We already had talked about who was going to scout each game,” Kellogg said. “Now we have an extra game to scout, or an extra team.”
As for the three seniors — Williams, Raphiael Putney and Sampson Carter — this is what they’ve worked for their entire career at UMass. So many notable players before them failed to end the Minutemen’s drought, but this opportunity is something Kellogg sold to them when they were recruited to the program.
Now, it’s all come to fruition.
“It came at the perfect time,” Carter said. “We grinded for four years and now we’re in our last year and we’re finally here, so it’s perfect to come at the last year. It’s perfect timing.”
For Kellogg, this was not only his selling-point to recruits. It’s also what he had to sell administration on when they hired him back in 2008. He was a player during the program’s hey-day, making it to the NCAA Tournament all four years he was with the Minutemen and going as far as the Elite Eight in his senior year.
For him to be the leader in resurrecting the program makes it that much more special.
“We got a little work to do to be compared to what (former UMass coach John Calipari) was doing here a long time ago,” he said. “But just to be mentioned with that and having played here, to me, we’re back where we belong.”
This dream moment for UMass didn’t quite go perfectly, however. CBS made a mistake when revealing the Minutemen’s portion of the draw, accidentally putting their name up on the screen and then quickly taking it down to reveal the Duke-Mercer matchup, leaving everyone in attendance a little confused.
“We were cheering and yelling and screaming and then they had to do it again,” Kellogg said. “We got a double whammy from the crowd here, which was great because I had to ask our guys, ‘who are we playing?,’ and then it came back up again.”
Now that UMass is in the Tournament, it must prepare for the biggest stage that any of these players have ever played on. With the bright lights and big stage comes high emotions, something that the Minutemen are going to need to keep in check if they want to make a run, rather than be one and done.
“I know my emotions are going to be high and there’s going to be a lot of energy and passion coming from me,” Maxie Esho said.
That’s to be expected. Because for the first time in 16 years, UMass is going dancing.
Patrick Strohecker can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @P_Strohecker.