Hewitt: UMass basketball should start holding Midnight Madness

By Stephen Hewitt

Maria Uminski/Collegian

On early Friday morning at colleges across the country, the official beginning of the college basketball season begins.

Why do you care? Well, unlike any other collegiate sport, the start of the college basketball season is something that holds a unique meaning.

Forty-one years ago, a tradition was born when then-Maryland coach Lefty Driesell orchestrated a team run at midnight to kick off the first official practice of the season. Every year, the NCAA picks a day, usually in the second week of October, when teams can start conducting formal basketball practices that are open to the public.

What began that night on a chilly outdoor track in College Park, Md., spawned into a national, annual phenomenon.

It’s called Midnight Madness, and over the years, it has turned into an event that could be loosely described as a party. Every school that participates has its own unique way of doing it, but the basic gist of Midnight Madness is to get people, specifically students, excited for the upcoming hoops year.

Under one roof, bands blare their horns, coaches bellow into microphones and players are introduced before they participate in a scrimmage or other basketball-related activities.

It’s a show for the fans, a pep rally if you will.

This year, the tradition is only gaining steam. On Friday, ESPNU will broadcast 13 different teams with live look-ins at their versions of Midnight Madness during a four-hour special. The broadcast begins at 5 p.m., which is obviously not midnight, but while the literal term of Midnight Madness has lost its meaning a bit, the event certainly has not.

At Kentucky, where former UMass coach John Calipari now roams the sidelines, there is almost nothing bigger. They call it Big Blue Madness, and thousands of the team’s supporters camp out in tents for days before filling up Rupp Arena for the festivities.

At Syracuse, rappers perform in front of a packed Carrier Dome. And all across  the country, programs offer their own variations of the event.

But at UMass there is nothing planned. But something should be.

For the first time since the 1990s – when the Minutemen were nationally recognized as one of the best – there has been a buzz around the basketball program. This follows a surprise season in which the team made a mini-run in the Atlantic 10 tournament and followed that up by making the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament.

This year, the Minutemen are picked fifth in the A-10 preseason poll and first among all schools in Massachusetts. Nearly every player from last season’s squad has returned – including four starters – and there are legitimate expectations from both fans and college basketball experts that they will at least be in the discussion to make the NCAA tournament by season’s end.

So with all of the buzz, why is there no Midnight Madness?

Well, there just seems like there’s no interest to put it in gear.

A few weeks ago, UMass coach Derek Kellogg was asked if he would like to have one. He didn’t seem completely sold on it, but also didn’t completely rule having something out.

“Whatever we do, I want to make sure that it’s successful and that we have a good showing and that it’s first class,” Kellogg said.

“Something would be good, but exactly what I’m not sure yet.”

What UMass will do, if anything, is still up in the air.

It’s not to say UMass has never held a Midnight Madness. When Calipari was in charge, he began the tradition in 1989 and it continued through 2009, when it was put to an end under Kellogg.

Last year, the program tried to start something new with the “Bash at Southwest Beach,” an event where the team congregated at the basketball courts in the Southwest Residential Area and interacted with their classmates. Kellogg mentioned that he wanted it to become a yearly event, but I haven’t heard anything about it coming back.

So, we come back to the idea of Midnight Madness. When the UMass tradition ended in 2009, UMass Athletic Director John McCutcheon said the reasoning behind it was that there was a general feeling that it got the team off on the wrong foot and the cost of having it was too much to be justified.

Ultimately, however, I don’t think it’s about the money.

It’s about the students and allowing them an opportunity to enjoy a fun night out and support their team, just like many other schools across the country get to do.

It doesn’t have to be as lavish and massive as the ones at Kentucky and Syracuse – in fact, having it at the Curry Hicks Cage would be more than suitable. Toss in some music, a scrimmage, and maybe a dunk contest and free giveaways, and students would be more than pleased.

Last year, Kellogg mentioned that he thinks a relationship between his players and UMass students is “imperative.”

Midnight Madness is the perfect opportunity to make it happen, and with so much buzz building around the program, they shouldn’t let it slip.

Stephen Hewitt can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.