UMass has begun new era of national relevance

By Stephen Sellner

Maria Uminski/Collegian

It’s a great time to be a UMass sports fan.

For years, the Minutemen and Minutewomen have been reserved to a somewhat relevant phenomenon while rarely making a splash on the national stage.

Ever since the glory days of men’s basketball when Marcus Camby and John Calipari roamed the Mullins Center, UMass has fallen from grace and gone from a national powerhouse and destination for top athletes to an after thought.

That all changed this past year.

For one year, UMass put itself on the map in college athletics. For one year, UMass experienced a scratch of the excitement that major college athletic programs like Southern California, Texas and Florida revel in nearly every season.

Everyone knows the football program has made the jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision. And while many will point to that as the symbol of UMass’ progression, it was the brotherhood of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team that got it all started.

Electric point guard Chaz Williams and company strung together a magical run this winter that caused students to swarm into the Mullins Center to catch a glimpse of the up-tempo, fast-breaking train of the Minutemen. UMass went from an incredibly mediocre bunch (15-15 in 2010-11) to a force to be reckoned with and even, at times, to be feared.

Take the second round of the Atlantic 10 tournament when the Minutemen went up to Atlantic City, N.J., and upset a top-seeded and ranked Temple team that, by the end of the game, looked like it wanted to take their ball and just go home thanks to the tenacity of the UMass squad.

Coach Derek Kellogg took a page out of Virginia Commonwealth’s playbook and went to a full-court pressure, motion offense that got the most out of the team’s ridiculous level of athleticism and produced multiple SportsCenter Top 10 appearances during the season.

That decision turned out to be a home run for Kellogg and the Minutemen and finally gave the team an identity that it can lean on for years to come.

Despite coming up short in the National Invitational Tournament in New York City, this season should be more of the same and then some for the Minutemen. Kellogg has brought in a talented and athletic recruiting class that will jump right in and team up with a UMass squad that returns all but one contributing member (center Sean Carter graduated).

It appears the men’s basketball team is a squad that the school can be excited to follow. The Mullins Center returned to those loud and rowdy days of the past, including a record-setting afternoon against Saint Louis that saw 8,399 fans pour in.

For other schools, a trip to the NIT might be considered a down year. Not for UMass. It’s a reason to be excited. After all, it earned the Minutemen a spot on ESPN for its season opener, a 10 a.m. date with Harvard at home on Nov. 13.

Kellogg’s crew has successfully marketed the UMass name to the biggest stage and it’s only just begun.

It’s a start.

If that weren’t enough, there was the men’s lacrosse team that was the last remaining undefeated team in the nation and atop the NCAA rankings for multiple weeks.

It’s nothing new the Minutemen were considered one of the best teams in the country, but to sit on top of college lacrosse for an extended period of time is something of note. Men’s lacrosse coach Greg Canella’s squad has been a consistent contender for a national championship over the years.

They’ve been the most consistent sports program at the University. And while UMass will have to endure key departures, Will Manny and the rest of the Minutemen will be right back in the thick of the national title conversation come spring time.

Yes, college lacrosse isn’t on the same level as college football, but there’s something to be said about a team on top of its sport. And with the sport growing as rapidly as it has, college lacrosse could be emerging as a premier collegiate sport in the years to come. And when that time comes, UMass will be there.

But what might be the most telltale sign that UMass athletics is making a splash in the national spotlight isn’t what happened in Amherst or at the school. It’s what happened in professional sports.

Victor Cruz took the NFL by storm with his salsa dancing and sweet grabs. The former Minuteman tore up defenses en route to New York Giants record 1,536 receiving yards while also hauling in 89 catches and nine touchdowns.

And with every touchdown catch, Cruz performed his signature salsa celebration that eventually earned him an invitation to compete in ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, which he declined.  He even did a number at the Grammy’s before millions of viewers.

Oh yeah, and he caught a touchdown in the Super Bowl as part of the Giants’ 21-17 victory in Super Bowl XLVI.

Cruz quickly became a major face in the world of sports. But he wasn’t the only former Minuteman to do so.

Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick put together a playoff run for the ages that rivaled Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas’ miraculous stretch the year before.

Quick carried the eighth-seeded Kings through the playoffs, knocking off the Vancouver Canucks in the process before topping the New Jersey Devils with 1.17 goal-against average in the Stanley Cup Finals. For his efforts, Quick earned the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the most valuable player of the playoffs.

If you’re thinking that other schools have experienced similar success such as these UMass alums, consider this: No other school has ever had alumni win a Super Bowl, a Stanley Cup and receive the Conn Smythe Trophy all in one calendar year.

It’s a start.

Doubters will point to the football team’s rough start to the season and the tall hill it has to climb to get to relevance in college football but as we all have heard, Rome wasn’t built in a day. In the Minutemen’s case, it may take a little longer than that.

Others might say an NIT trip out of the men’s basketball team isn’t on the same level as powerhouses like Duke and Kentucky who compete for national championships.

And as mentioned before, college lacrosse is not on the same barometer as college football.

But considering where UMass has been and the progress it has made over one year, it’s reason for students and alumni to proudly sport their maroon and white colors and gives the Minutemen and Minutewomen the national stage necessary to put UMass on the map.

It’s a start. And a damn good one at that.

Stephen Sellner can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.