By Matt Creedon
Special to the College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — As Sean Carter slammed home a pass from Jesse Morgan to seal what would be a 72-59 win on Saturday, the Mullins Center erupted.
Not just because the Minutemen were going to win or because they had defeated Atlantic 10 co-leader St. Louis, but because the program that so many fell in love with in the 90’s and so many others saw struggle in the years since was back.
The victory in front of a crowd of 8,339 – the largest since 2007 – has UMass (16-5, 5-2) sitting atop the anything but predictable Atlantic 10 standings entering the week.
The Minutemen are joined at the top by La Salle and St. Bonaventure while conference favorites Temple (4-2) and Xavier (5-3) sit fourth and fifth.
The road here has not been easy for UMass.
Since John Calipari left after the Final Four run in 1995-1996, UMass has had just six winning seasons.
Sure, there were some big wins like the one over UConn in 2004 or the one at Kansas in 2008, but much of the past sixteen years have been marked by losing seasons in a cavernous Mullins Center as the fanbase had disappeared.
There was some hope when Travis Ford led the Minutemen to the NIT Final in 2008, but he left for Oklahoma State just a week after it was announced he had signed a new deal to stay in Amherst.
In walked Springfield native and point guard of some of those great 90’s UMass teams, Derek Kellogg.
Kellogg entered this season on the hot seat with many fans as he had posted a 39-53 record over his first three years. But one thing no one ever argued against was that Kellogg was a great recruiter. His ties to Memphis and John Calipari caught the attention of many recruits and he has been able to bring excellent talent to Amherst.
The question was when that talent would translate into wins.
It turns out the answer to UMass’ problems may not have been who they were bringing in, but who they needed to let go.
For the first three seasons Kellogg was assisted by Vance Walberg, the inventor of the monotonous dribble drive motion offense. Walberg was let go over the summer and Kellogg installed an up-tempo, 40 minutes of hell-esque style of play that suits his recruits perfectly and they love playing it.
Led by 5-8, lightning quick point guard Chaz Williams, UMass has been full-court pressing, alley-ooping, no-look passing, out-hustling, and out-running opponents for forty minutes in every game this season.
While the Minutemen might have to further prove themselves to the nation because of a weak out-of-conference schedule, they’ve already won the hearts of UMass fans both young and old with their attitude and playing style.
The student section, which has often failed to draw more than 15 or 20 people over the past few years, was filled to the brim with 1,000 plus on Saturday afternoon.
And the students, who are notorious for leaving athletic events early, remained throughout to lead the crowd which some have called the loudest since the Calipari era.
The alumni also showed up in droves with some driving from as far as Indiana for the game. A big part of the resurgence of the fanbase is not just the success this specific season, but the knowledge that this is just the beginning.
No matter what ends up happening in the final month or so, the future is bright for UMass.
They will have Williams at point guard for another two seasons.
6-9 sophomore forward Raphiael Putney is on his way to joining Camby, Roe, and Erving among the UMass greats.
And Kellogg’s initial five player recruiting class still has another year or two left.
Freshman forward Cady Lalanne could be the best player in the A-10 in a few years.
Explosive guard Jordan Laguerre will add his talents next year after having to sit out this one due to an NCAA ruling.
Anyone on the roster is capable of starting which makes UMass one of the deepest teams in the A-10, if not the country.
With all the hype surrounding the program (most of which has developed in just the last two weeks), UMass must maintain focus and take care of business on the road this week against two weak teams in Rhode Island and George Washington.
For now however, UMass fans can take a step back and celebrate seeing their Minutemen in the latest March Madness projections as the calendar turns to February.