Chiarelli: After years of rebuilding, Minutemen are officially back
The fans squeezed in bunches, craning their necks and maneuvering into position to peer through the glass windows into the dimly lit private event room at the Amherst Brewing Company.
Inside sat the Massachusetts men’s basketball team, seated in two rows in front of a television and anxiously awaiting its name to be asked to dance by the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Front and center sat UMass coach Derek Kellogg, donning a maroon polo amid a sea of gray “The UMass Way” Adidas T-shirts sported by each player. The mood was jovial, the expectations high.
It was the perfect summation of the current state of the now-sixth seeded Minutemen and the program.
Within the walls of the program, there’s a prevailing sense of pride. For over two years, UMass flirted with the idea of truly delving into the national college basketball landscape. But only now – 16 years after the last Minutemen team to play in the NCAA Tournament – are they finally back.
Each player surrounding Kellogg came to the Amherst area with a story. It’s an eclectic mix, ranging from traditionally recruited freshmen to players who never latched on to their original commitment to guard Chaz Williams, a Hofstra-turned-UMass product in his final season who sat directly beside Kellogg. There’s Sampson Carter and Raphiael Putney, a pair of redshirt seniors in their final crack at postseason redemption.
But wedged in the middle sat Kellogg, the true architect of the program. A former player under John Calipari and local product, Kellogg’s finally tasting the fruition of six years of labor. He swayed all of those players to Amherst. And while the younger players came to the area eying a program with a foundation in place, the veterans entered campus saddled with the responsibility of rebuilding a once-proud program.
“I felt good for our guys,” Kellogg said. “They put a lot of hard work and faith into this program and to have the opportunity to go and compete in what I think is the greatest sporting event on Earth in your college career is important.”
The hard work and faith have been tested over the last two to three seasons. There have been the close calls; UMass narrowly missed out on an NCAA Tournament berth a season ago. The Minutemen lost players to injury – Carter missed most of 2011-12 with a hip injury and guard Jesse Morgan tore his ACL last season before being dismissed from the program – during crucial stretches.
Even this year, questions arose. The Minutemen blasted out of the gates to a 16-1 start, reaching as high as No. 13 in the AP Top 25. That same team has gone 8-7 to close out the season, tumbling out of the top 25 rankings while searching for the same consistency that made them one of the nation’s most surprising teams.
But ultimately, the NCAA Tournament selection committee felt strongly enough about UMass to award it the sixth seed in the Midwest region, a mildly surprising decision considering most bracketology experts pegged the Minutemen in the eighth or ninth seeded range. The committee acknowledged the entire body of work instead of focusing on a small sample size.
In a lot of ways, it’s not unlike the UMass program under Kellogg. The lumps have come, but the structure and future of the program remained intact. Now, it reaps the benefits of its own success.
“It’s a heck of a feeling,” Carter said on the sixth seed. “It really shows how much love and support we have from everybody around the program, so it’s a great feeling. Now we have to go out and prove a lot of people wrong.”
In reality, the Minutemen have proved plenty. They proved they could take the next step and achieve the potential which was long rumored to be apparent within the program. And they proved they’re a formidable unit, strong enough to compete with various types of teams throughout the country.
One look around the private room on Sunday proved it.
Those fans plastered against the windows hoped for just a look at UMass basketball and everything it represented. Inside, casual fans and season ticket holders intertwined in the audience. Young kids sought out players for autographs and adults watched from afar, marveling at a basketball team which provides them a national sense of pride for the first time in 16 years. People cared and emotions were ample.
When Carter stepped foot on campus, there weren’t enough fans to fill up even a quarter of the Mullins Center.
The selection represented a reason for celebration but also provided a chance for reflection. It’s been a lengthy, strenuous rebuilding project for Kellogg and the entire program. He used the word vindication on multiple occasions to describe the return to the NCAA Tournament. Williams repeated that he and his teammates were blessed.
On Sunday, Kellogg, Williams and the rest of the Minutemen finally saw the end result of a season essentially dedicated to returning to the Big Dance.
On Sunday, UMass basketball finally returned.
Mark Chiarelli can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.