UMass hosts home opener against Ivy League champions

By Adam Miller

Having a good basketball team is generally the last thing that comes to mind when considering Ivy League schools.

That stereotype is exactly why Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg feels uneasy about playing Cornell in the home opener tonight. Although the Big Red (1-0) doesn’t have the reputation of Memphis or Michigan State, Kellogg still believes that the game against Cornell will be almost as tough.

The Big Red returns all five of its starters and has a team made up of nine seniors.

This team isn’t just experienced, but talented too, despite being from the Ivy League. Cornell earned the 14th seed in the 2008 and 2009 NCAA Tournaments. Its recent success earned it an Associated Press Top 25 vote in the preseason poll, and then beat Alabama, 71-67, in its first game of the season on the road.

“If you watch them, they don’t really have a lot of things they don’t do well,” Kellogg said. “They’re a solid defensive team and offensively, they play like they have six seniors. The more tape I’ve watched on them, the better I think they are. It’s one of the better Ivy League teams that you’ll see in a long time.”

The Big Red was the unanimous favorite to win the Ivy League again this year, led by three All-Ivy selections as well as the Ivy Rookie and Defensive Players of the Year. Its top threat will be senior Ryan Wittman, who scored 23 points against the Crimson Tide and averaged 18.2 points per game last year.

Another player who figures to give UMass (0-1) a lot of trouble is seven-footer Jeff Foote (although Kellogg believes he’s 7-1). The senior scored 17 points and added seven rebounds in the win against Alabama.

He presents a mismatch for the Minutemen, whose center Sean Carter is at least three inches shorter than Foote.

Kellogg knows that the experience Cornell has will present problems for UMass, which just came off an 84-67 loss to Central Florida on Nov. 13.

One of the biggest problems that Kellogg sees with his team playing the Big Red is that he’s still trying to teach the Minutemen how to play smarter. He pointed to the quick shots against the Golden Knights that led to a 33 percent field goal percentage.

“I hope they realize that what I’m telling them is that you don’t want to be part of your own demise,” Kellogg said. “Don’t give the other team stuff when they don’t really earn it at times.”

Kellogg is also looking for some of his other veterans to step up, especially after he saw what a poor-shooting Ricky Harris does to UMass. Harris shot 5-for-15 against UCF with 15 points on the night.

The only two other players to score in double figures were guards Anthony Gurley and Freddie Riley, but nobody could match the 26-point onslaught that came from Golden Knights guard Isaac Sosa.

Kellogg understands that the Minutemen may have to deal with a player who scores just as easily with Wittman. What he cares most about is making sure his defense is prepared to provide some kind of challenge to someone with Wittman’s scoring ability.

Kellogg said that UMass has done a lot of things the way he wants them to be in practice. But with his team’s youth, he’s not sure if that effort can translate to success under the bright lights with its inexperience.

The Minutemen have four returning scholarship players on the 2009-10 squad and at this point, he wants to make sure future recruits have the work ethic that he’s trying to put in place.

Adam Miller can be reached at [email protected]