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Johnston: UMass once again going through a transition year

(Caroline O’Connor/Daily Collegian)

One step forward, two steps back.

That’s how it has been for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team. Just when the program looks to be on the path to being a legitimate year-in, year-out NCAA tournament team, something falters and they have to start all over.

After making it to the big dance in 1992 through 1998, including a final four appearance in 1996, the Minutemen looked destined to become a basketball powerhouse. Yet after the departure of coach John Calipari, who had a UMass record 193 wins but left to coach the New Jersey Nets after a recruiting scandal, the program fell apart.

It would take UMass 16 years to return to the NCAA tournament. The Minutemen had just two winning seasons before Travis Ford took over as head coach in 2005. After going 13-15 in his first year, Ford would lead UMass to back-to-back winning seasons, including a co-Atlantic 10 championship in 2006. The Minutemen would then go on to the National Invitation Tournament finals in 2007.

Right when the Minutemen were ready to take the next step and go from one of the top teams to just miss the tournament to being a team competing in the tournament, Ford decided to leave UMass and go coach at Oklahoma State, forcing the Minutemen to go through yet another rebuild.

UMass chose Derek Kellogg to replace Ford, and he would coach the Minutemen for nine seasons.

Just as most new coaches do, Kellogg struggled in his first few seasons. UMass didn’t finish over the .500 mark until 2011-12 when they finished 25-12 and made it to the NIT semifinals.

Kellogg’s best year came in 2013, when the Minutemen became nationally ranked and finished with a 24-9 record. They qualified for the NCAA tournament being awarded a six seed.

Though they would fall in the first round to Tennessee, the season was a massive success for UMass.

The Minutemen would fail to qualify for the tournament the next two seasons, but that didn’t stop Kellogg from signing a loaded recruiting class for the 2016-17 season. UMass brought in an ESPN top 100 recruit in guard DeJon Jarreau as well as his longtime friend Brison Gresham, another highly touted player.

Pairing the freshmen class with returning starters in Donte Clark and Rashaan Holloway gave optimism that the Minutemen would turn the corner and could compete for a tournament spot.

Yet the Minutemen had another typical season, finishing just below .500 with a 15-18 record, leading to the firing of Kellogg.

The Minutemen acted quickly, bringing in Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey to run the program. But after traveling to Amherst, Kelsey had second thoughts and backed out of the job just prior to his opening press conference.

UMass would then hire Chattanooga coach Matt McCall, but the Minutemen had dug themselves into too deep of a hole. Seven players would transfer out of the program, including both Jarreau and Gresham who transferred to Houston, and Clark who initially decided on Coastal Carolina but changed his mind and went to Texas Southern instead.

Just one year removed from a season that many thought UMass could make a run in the A-10 and beyond, the Minutemen are stuck going through yet another transition year where the expectations are low.

UMass has just four players returning who gave them significant minutes from a year ago in Holloway, C.J. Anderson, Luwane Pipkins and Malik Hines. The firing of Kellogg and all that ensued disabled the Minutemen during the recruiting process as they only brought two freshmen into the program.

Combine all that with the amount of players that transferred out of the program and that leaves UMass down to a rotation of just 10 players.

McCall has done a nice job of bringing in four transfers, who are all ineligible to play until next season. With a full season to recruit, McCall has already landed Samba Diallo a small forward and Tre Wood a point guard.

While all this is positive, it doesn’t change the fact that the Minutemen took a big step back this year.

McCall understands that it is going to be on him to change the culture of the team and bring back some positivity for the program.

“I think in year one when you’re establishing a culture and you’re trying to get the program going in the direction under our leadership, I think the most important thing is for me to lead, and our staff,” McCall said. “Obviously in a game on the floor those guys are going to be connected and we’ll rely on C.J. [Anderson] and [Pipkins] and Malik [Hines] and those guys to talk and huddle up and get things going. I think it’s very important in year one for the loudest voice to be mine.”

McCall’s mentor is all too familiar with turning programs around. McCall learned the coaching ropes while working under Billy Donovan at Florida. Donovan was able to turn a lackluster Florida program into a perennial powerhouse, as he won back-to-back national championships for the Gators in 2006 and 2007.

It will be on McCall to take the lessons he learned from Donovan and ensure UMass takes one step forward, then continue to move in a positive direction.

Thomas Johnston can be reached at tjohnston@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @TJ__Johnston.

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