Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Chiarelli: Sudden end creates questions of what UMass’ season could have been

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Taylor C. Snow/Daily Collegian

Taylor C. Snow/Daily Collegian

RALEIGH, N.C. — When Massachusetts men’s basketball fans reflect on the 2013-2014 season, they’ll do it with warmth and positivity. And years from now, when fans pass along tales of what it was like to watch point guard Chaz Williams, they’ll recall one of the best players to call Amherst home.

Or at least they should.

And fans will. But in the immediate aftermath of UMass’ abrupt 86-67 departure from the NCAA Tournament to Tennessee on Friday, emotions naturally ran rampant. It was no different for Williams, whose career ended at PNC Arena without any of the customary flair or dazzle that follows him.

As Williams trudged off the court with about two minutes left in the game, the finality of the situation appeared to hit hard. His pace slowed as he departed and during the ensuing timeout, he stood behind his team which huddled around Coach Derek Kellogg, unable to stand still. Soon, he placed a towel over his head and tears followed shortly thereafter.

It’s never easy to see a career as distinguished as Williams’ come to an end. In a tournament where only one team walks away the victor, an eventual disappointing ending was presumed. Or at least it’s presumed by most.

“It still hasn’t hit me yet and probably won’t because we just lost,” Williams said. “It probably will never hit me until the NCAA is over, because I feel like we’re supposed to be playing until April 7.”

While the National Championship Game is an incredibly bold target to set sights on, it’s not unsurprising to hear such a declaration from Williams. And it’s also not far-fetched to imagine the Minutemen playing deeper into March than their second round exit.

There was a time not so long ago – November and December to be exact – where envisioning UMass playing the role of the aggressor in March appealed to many. The Minutemen steamrolled competition to the tune of a 16-1 start, winning the Charleston Classic and defeating four soon-to-be NCAA Tournament teams in their out-of-conference portion of the schedule.

Life was good in Amherst. With success came notoriety, climbing to No. 13 in the AP Top 25 in addition to becoming fixtures in premature bracketology. The UMass basketball “brand” carried a swagger and the potential to explode in living rooms up and down the east coast.

But something changed.

As the calendar flipped and conference play began, UMass stumbled, finishing the season with an 8-8 record which was aided by multiple second half rallies. Suddenly, a veteran team loaded with confidence played apprehensively. The Minutemen knew what they needed to do to win – play strong defense and push the ball in transition – but did it for portions of games instead of multiple games at a time.

The inconsistency pushed on, as did a downward trend in effectiveness. Williams shot just 36 percent from the floor over his final 10 games. Center Cady Lalanne went from routinely producing double-doubles to scoring in double-digits just twice over that same span. The starting redshirt senior duo of Raphiael Putney and Sampson Carter combined to average just 15.8 points per game over their final 10 appearances.

And it culminated in an early quarterfinals exit from the Atlantic 10 Tournament and an even earlier dismissal from the Big Dance. With a season built on promise and expectation, it was hard to imagine it ending like this.

“Fifteen years (without an NCAA appearance) has been a long time,” Carter said grimly after the loss.

“You kind of get unappreciative during the season because you want more and want more. You get addicted to winning. But it’s been a bittersweet year, and we’re kind of bitter right now. But when you think about the past and the future, you appreciate everything.”

Carter’s snapshot evaluation of the season – an incredibly difficult thing for a senior fresh off an underwhelming final college appearance to do – is accurate. This UMass group finally knocked down 15 seasons worth of barriers and should be commended for that. But it also graduates three seniors and needs to spend the coming months evaluating what’s next.

Four years from now, will this team be remembered as the one which dug up the ground and laid the foundation? Or will the loss of a transcendent ability like Williams push it closer to the land of one-and-dones?

These are questions without answers, but they also shed light on the importance of this season for the Minutemen. They’ll be the first to tell you, it’s a long and winding road to the NCAA Tournament. To end the season on such a decline after displaying stretches of brilliance and overall domination undoubtedly left all facets of UMass basketball wanting more.

And potentially wondering what could’ve been.

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.

1 Comment

One Response to “Chiarelli: Sudden end creates questions of what UMass’ season could have been”

  1. south dennis on March 24th, 2014 12:49 pm

    Nice ending article

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