Minutemen jump into 2009-10 season

By David Brinch

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HoopIMassachusetts basketball coach Derek Kellogg says he doesn’t really know how good his team is yet.

That must be okay, because no one else on the Minutemen’s strong schedule knows either.

After a 80-78 exhibition win over Dowling and a season-opening loss on the road to Central Florida, UMass faces arguably one of the best Cornell teams in recent memory tonight in the opening round of the Legends Classic tournament, hosted at the Mullins Center. The Minutemen also play other tough non-conference opponents later on this year, including Rutgers, Florida or Michigan State, Memphis, Boston College and Davidson back-to-back in late December before starting their regular Atlantic 10 schedule.

“I’m trying to recruit the kids who want to play at that level and the only way you do that is scheduling those types of games,” Kellogg said. “I have a better indication now of how I want everything implemented with the defense and offense into what we’re doing and I think we’re a little more versatile.”

Versatility will pay off for the Minutemen, whose roster includes five freshmen and two big-man transfers, Sean Carter and Hashim Bailey, who sat out last year and will need to be a presence offensively and defensively as the team’s only true big men. Redshirt junior forward Anthony Gurley, probably the most versatile player on UMass’s roster, will look to lead the Minutemen, along with senior captain Ricky Harris through a long and grinding schedule this season.

“I want to go 10, maybe 11 guys and the big guys are going to be in position where we’re going to shuffle guys in and out the whole game,” Kellogg said. “I need four, maybe five minutes at a time. I’m going to have to put up with some turnovers in this offense early on because the guys are all new and we’re trying to have them play faster than they’ve ever played before.”

In his second year as head coach of the program, Kellogg is still getting his young team familiar with the dribble-drive offense, as well as a number of defensive sets in order to shut down some high-profile teams.

“Basically we got a whole new team out there, which I like because I like their attitudes and I like the kind of energy they bring,” Kellogg said. “Last year at this time, I felt like I was tired and it seemed like a long season at that point. With this group, I feel like I could go every day. I feel like I can practice 10 times a day with these guys.”

After facing the Big Red tonight, the Minutemen take on Arkansas-Fort Worth and St. Francis, two teams that should give UMass momentum going into the Legends Classic in Atlantic City, N.J., over Thanksgiving weekend. The Minutemen will take on the Knights on Friday, and either the Spartans or Gators on Sunday. UMass defeated Florida in the National Invitational Tournament semifinals two seasons ago, but the Minutemen aren’t set on returning back to the NIT: They want to bring the program back to national prominence.

“People at UMass want a national program, they want a team that’s going to play against the best,” Kellogg said. “I want to recruit the best players and we want to get national exposure and the only way you do that is by playing a national schedule.”

After the Legends Classic, the Minutemen host Quinnipiac on Dec. 2 before going on the road against Holy Cross, a game that will be played at Worcester’s DCU Center. After games against Seton Hall and Grambling State, UMass faces its three toughest opponents all in a row. Kellogg believes this is where his team will either gain momentum for the upcoming conference schedule, or for the future of the program.

“We’ll find out where we are pretty quickly,” Kellogg said. “It’s a schedule that I want to continue to have so that when we get older and more mature, we can compete with those guys on the road, in a hostile environment and on television.”

The game against Memphis, where Kellogg was an assistant for eight seasons, will be played at the TD Garden and broadcasted on ESPN2 on Saturday Dec. 19, followed by contests at Boston College and Davidson. A non-conference game against Baylor on Jan. 23 and a home contest against Charlotte on Jan. 30 will also be televised on ESPNU.

The Minutemen then get into their A-10 schedule, hosting Fordham on Jan. 6, a team that won three games and one in the A-10 last fall. After a four-game stretch against La Salle, hosted in Springfield, Mass., and back-to-back road games at Richmond and Temple, UMass heads back home to take on St. Bonaventure before the televised game against Baylor. The Minutemen then come back for two home games against Charlotte and Xavier.

After taking on Rhode Island, a squad that reached the NIT for the second year in a row last year, UMass will travel to Pittsburgh to square off against an experienced Dukes team that made the finals of the A-10 Championships last season. The last six games of the Minutemen’s season includes Saint Joseph’s, George Washington, Saint Louis and No. 18 Dayton, who made the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season and have a veteran team returning. The Minutemen will travel to take on the nationally ranked Flyers on Feb. 27, before traveling to La Salle and finishing up their regular season at home against Rhode Island.

“Right now I have no clue what kind of team we are, but I do like that we come to practice hard every day, and the good thing is we don’t have a lot of pressure from media people,” Kellogg said. “You could probably ask any coach in the league who UMass has on the roster and they have no clue. I’d prefer eight seniors and four juniors, but what’s great about these kids are that they are receptive to learning.”

David Brinch can be reached at [email protected]