Upperclassmen grasping leadership roles amid heightened expectations

By Patrick Strohecker

Maria Uminski/Daily Collegian

Ever since Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg arrived in Amherst prior to the 2008-09 season, his goal to reach the NCAA Tournament has remained intact.

 

Slowly, but surely, Kellogg has turned the program around in his first five seasons, but the team still hasn’t made it to the Big Dance. Now entering his sixth season at the helm, he may have all the pieces in place to finally crack the field of 68 and get the program back to the tournament.

“The one thing is every year, I think that is the ultimate goal for college coaches and for a team and a program is to shoot for a great season and to try to make the NCAA Tournament,” Kellogg said. “So, that obviously is our goal, I mean, one that we’ve had since I’ve been here, and we’re going to continue to keep that as our ultimate goal.”

UMass hasn’t made the tournament since 1998 despite some strong teams under previous coach Travis Ford.

This year, expectations are higher than previous seasons for UMass, especially with seven players coming back from last year’s National Invitation Tournament team.

“All three years I’ve been here, we’ve been on the bubble,” senior forward Raphiael Putney said. “But this year, I feel like we’re a top-notch above where we should be.”

With the heightened expectations, the pressure is also multiplied, especially after just being picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic 10 at Tuesday’s conference media day. But that’s not something that Putney, or the rest of team, is letting get to them.

“Every year since I’ve been here, we haven’t been picked in the Top 5,” Putney said. “We’ve always been the underdog of the A-10. We always surprise everybody each year, so I was hoping to be picked fourth or fifth.”

If the Minutemen plan to live up to those expectations, they will need a lot more than just the returners to step up. To match the seven returners are four freshmen who will see time this season, and it is up to the upperclassmen to make sure that they understand the team’s system.

“They’ve matured and I think we now have a culture where the older guys are teaching the younger guys how to do business, both on the court, academically and off the floor,” Kellogg said. “And I think that’s when you can say ‘we have a program now.’”

Kellogg went on to say that his ultimate goal for the upperclassmen is for them to start running drills and to take over more in practice.

One player that has grasped the leadership role without any playing time from last season is redshirt sophomore Derrick Gordon. Gordon sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules after spending his freshman year at Western Kentucky, but still practiced with UMass all year.

Now entering his second season as a member of the Minutemen, he knows the ropes better and can take some of the burden off the older players.

“I took (the leadership) approach this summer,” Gordon said. “Even though I didn’t play (last year), I still have three years in college and a lot of experience. I went to the NCAA Tournament at my other school, so, I mean, I definitely know what it takes to get there. I’m just here to push myself and my teammates and we have a chance to be very special this year.”

Patrick Strohecker can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Strohecker.