UMass has returned to prominence for the first time since its vacated Final Four.
These days, Derek Kellogg is having trouble finding peace.
Not so long ago, the Massachusetts men’s basketball coach would stroll through campus in mid-December in relative silence, only the crunch of snow under his feet and patter of students chatting in the background serving as a soundtrack to his walk.
No more. Now, Kellogg — suddenly standing at the helm of a nationally ranked program — gets swarmed while standing in line for coffee. When he sits down at restaurants, passersby pound the glass in excitement. Signs in storefronts around tiny Amherst, Mass., nearly 100 miles west of Boston, exalt the experience that has everyone buzzing:
“It’s all coming at once, and it’s great,” said Kellogg, who coached UMass to the NIT each of the past two years. “All of the sudden, people are really, really paying attention.”
In some ways the hype over the up-tempo, pressing squad led by the tiny-but-dynamic Chaz Williams is like déjà vu for the sixth-year coach, who has gladly waved off his calm walks for the hubbub. Kellogg was a UMass freshman himself 22 years ago, playing under John Calipari. It was that 1991-92 team that first made the AP top 25, beginning a seven-year stretch that marked the program’s glory years. The Minutemen made the NCAA tournament every season from 1992 to ’98, including Sweet 16 in 1992, the Elite Eight in ‘95 and the Final Four in ’96 (though NCAA sanctions later vacated it).
Returning to that form is the dream that Kellogg has sold to recruits since he arrived, one that was almost hard to re-imagine on it’s own. At least until now.
Since knocking off teams such as Brigham Young, New Mexico, Nebraska and Providence — six top-100 teams in all according to CBSSports.com’s Ratings Percentage Index listings — the Minutemen (11-1) have vaulted into the national consciousness, playing a fun-to-watch style with plenty of star power. Besides Williams (15.3 points, 7.7 assists per game), Massachusetts — which is ranked No. 3 in the RPI and is No. 23 in the AP poll — boasts an extremely tough and effective big man in junior Cady LaLanne, who in his first healthy season is averaging a double-double at 14.0 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. As the team has impressed, crowds have come in droves — against Providence a week ago, the Minutemen drew 9,500, their first sellout in five years.
The major jump might have taken Kellogg off-guard a bit, but it’s something that the players were “starving” for in the offseason, Williams said — when the team underwent a more rigorous regimen than usual.
“It was like a bunch of animals ready to be let out of the cage,” Williams said.
Perhaps that’s why Kellogg hasn’t taken it as his role to defuse the excitement, saying instead that his players should “bottle it up and enjoy it.” He knows he doesn’t have the type of team that would easily become cocky. In fact, on the day that Massachusetts was first ranked — the last time coming in 1996 — the team held practice as usual, and Williams remembers just one conversation about the achievement.
“I joked around with [senior forward] Sampson Carter about it, I said ‘Man, we are finally in the top 25,’ ” Williams said.
Sampson turned to his teammate and shook his head, knowing all too well the feeling of winning 15 games or fewer and hearing echoes in the William D. Mullins Memorial Center.
The peace could return to Amherst as quickly as it was forced away.
“Nah, we’re close to being out of the top 25,” Sampson said.
Williams said the pair looked at each other and made another commitment. “We still have a lot of work to do,” he said.
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