UM Basketball begins ’09 campaign

By David Brinch

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The only and last time the Massachusetts men’s basketball team faced the University of Central Florida, it was a special year.

UMass won the game, 92-70, and was in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament en route to the programs first Final Four appearance.

The Minutemen will look to get back to the Big Dance when it open its 2009-2010 regular season this Friday against the Knights, pitting together two of the youngest teams in the country.

The Minutemen have five freshmen on their roster, including transfers Hasheem Bailey and Sean Carter, while the Knights have six freshmen, including Michael Jordan’s son, Marcus and two red shirt freshmen.

“It will be hostile, but they are in a similar boat as us in that they have a lot of young new guys, so that sounds exactly like us,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “It will kind of be like, who’s maybe a little more prepared at this point.”

Coming off an 80-78 preseason exhibition win against Dowling last Saturday, the Minutemen will now go on the road, and will look to win its first game of a season for the seventh straight year.

In the victory against the Division II Golden Lions, senior guard Ricky Harris had 28 points, while junior Anthony Gurley added 13 in the win. Carter grabbed 12 rebounds and contributed six points. All five freshmen saw action in their first collegiate game, with Terell Vinson (four points, two rebounds), Sampson Carter (six points, three rebounds) and Freddie Riley (three points) seeing substantial minutes.

“Them being at home, first night, football weekend, 60,000 kids go to school there, so they should have a pretty good crowd,” Kellogg said. “It should be a good hostile environment for our young guys to see, this is what college basketball is all about.”

Kellogg, who was an assistant at Memphis before coming back to his alma mater, faced the Knights three times, who also play in Conference USA. While the Minutemen and Knights are similar in experience, the two teams run completely different systems.

“They’re kind of the opposite of us,” Kellogg said. They run more controlled sets, and try to slow the game down a little bit, and try to run certain plays for certain guys, so it will be kind of a contrast in styles of play.”

UMass, who brought the dribble-drive offense back to Amherst last season and who return just 36.1 average points per game from five players, will need Harris to carry the scoring load and to help incorporate the freshmen into the offense against the Knights. Harris, named to the Atlantic 10 Pre-Season first team and returning leading scorer in the conference, (18. 2 points-per-game) is the only scholarship senior on the team.

The Knights are led by Issac Sosa (8.2 ppg) and return an average of just 31.5 percent of its scoring from last year, and must fill the void left by All-American shooting guard Jermaine Taylor. Taylor, who was drafted by the Washington Wizards and was traded to the Houston Rockets, was the Conference USA Player of the Year last year and was third in the nation in scoring (26.2 ppg).  The Knights beat Saint Leo, 84-65 in an exhibition on Nov. 4, and have two big time non-conference match-ups against Notre Dame Dec. 6 and Connecticut Dec. 20.

Kellogg knows the comparisons between the two teams are there, and is optimistic for his second season at the helm of the Minutemen.

“It’s two programs kind of in the same spot, and heading in the same direction.”

David Brinch can be reached at [email protected].