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Derrick Gordon using NCAA Tournament experience to lead UMass basketball

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

All season long, the constant leaders on the Massachusetts men’s basketball team have been seniors Chaz Williams, Sampson Carter and Raphiael Putney.

But with the team’s first NCAA Tournament game in 16 years only days away, they’ve deferred their leadership role to the only player on the team with Tournament experience: Derrick Gordon.

“The first day, after we got selected, we were riding back and we were talking about the Tournament and how it is, with all the lights, the people and atmosphere,” junior Cady Lalanne said. “(Gordon) was just telling me how it’s a whole different experience, but as soon as the ball goes up in the air, it’s just back to basketball.”

Gordon, a redshirt sophomore, is the only member of UMass to play in the Big Dance, leading Western Kentucky there in his freshman season in 2012. He got the Hilltoppers through the play-in game and into the first round before losing to eventual national champion Kentucky.

Even though it was only two games, it’s still significantly more experience than anyone else on the team. Gordon has emerged as a leader this week, with each and every member of the team picking his brain about what it’s like to play on the sport’s biggest stage.

“This is something that doesn’t happen to a lot of teams,” Gordon said. “And since I have the most experience, I’m just telling them, ‘We just have to stay together,’ and ‘We can’t start getting mad at each other and pointing fingers.’”

And while much of the preparation for the unique atmosphere surrounding the NCAA Tournament may fall on Gordon’s shoulders, there’s only so much he can tell his teammates. After that, it’s up to the Minutemen to stick to their usual routine and perform as a team.

“We talked a little bit yesterday about what we need to do to win games in the Tournament,” Putney said. “At the end of the day, we just have to come together as a team. The teams that play together, play defense together and run the offense that they run will be good in the long run.”

But if there’s one thing that even experience can’t calm, it’s the nerves beforehand.

“I basically told them that they’re going to have jitters and I’m going to have jitters,” Gordon said.

Even with the hours rapidly passing by until UMass tips off on Friday afternoon, the mood surrounding the team is surprisingly relaxed. That all might change when the team lands on Wednesday in Raleigh, N.C., but for right now, it’s under control.

“I think the anxiousness left the night we were picked to be in the tournament,” Putney said. “So now we’re just more relaxed, more calm and more focused on what we need to do to win basketball games.”

Patrick Strohecker can be reached at pstrohec@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @P_Strohecker.

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