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Kevin Cullen

UMass and the biggest small man in the country

UMass guard Chaz Williams wanted to do more than lead the Minutemen to the NCAA tournament this year; he also wanted to become the first male in the family to graduate from college.

Rich Barnes/Getty Images/File

UMass guard Chaz Williams wanted to do more than lead the Minutemen to the NCAA tournament this year; he also wanted to become the first male in the family to graduate from college.

AMHERST — Last year, when the UMass basketball team failed to make the NCAA tournament for the 15th year in a row, Chaz Williams slipped out of coach Derek Kellogg’s house, where his teammates had gathered to watch the tourney selection show.

“I cried,” Williams said. “I cried some tears.”

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After the season ended, a team in Turkey offered Williams a six-figure contract, something that would provide some financial security, not just for him, but for his 3-year-old daughter Cheree. It was tempting.

But Williams decided to come back for his senior year, not just to lead the Minutemen on the floor, but to become the first male member of his family to graduate from college. And in a couple of weeks, the UMass players will gather at Kellogg’s house again, and if Williams cries this time, his will be tears of joy.

Barring a catastrophic collapse, UMass is being projected as a midlevel seed in the national tournament. This is a big sports story, but the return of UMass to national prominence on the basketball court has the potential to help the school — which is massively underfunded, compared to other state universities — in other areas.

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“We’re aware of that,” Kellogg said Thursday, as his team gathered for a shootaround before flying to Dayton for a game this weekend. “We know that people are reconnecting with UMass because we’re playing well. It’s just more incentive.”

The flags hanging from the Mullins Center tell part of the story. From 1993 to 1998, some terrific UMass teams made it to the tournament, one making it to the Final Four. But the next 15 years were frustrating. Last year, the conventional wisdom was that UMass needed one more win to make the tourney.

“I kept thinking, if I had only played better in one game,” Williams said.

He’s too hard on himself. It is doubtful that UMass would be tourney-bound if Williams hadn’t returned. He is generously listed at 5 feet 9 inches, but is among the best point guards in the country. His father died when he was young, and he says he plays hard to honor his grandmother and mom, who kept him on the straight and narrow growing up in Brooklyn.

“Chaz has done everything I could ask and more,” says Kellogg, who played point guard for some of those great UMass teams.

Williams leads. UMass follows. His swagger inspires confidence more than cockiness. “We’re not satisfied,” he says. “We’re not respected to the extent that we think we deserve. But that’s fine. It makes us work harder.”

While controversial and a work in progress, the decision to launch UMass into bigtime football was done in part to create more interest in, and legislative support for, the university. But the basketball program’s return to national prominence has the potential to deliver on that sooner. Anything that can get people in and around Boston to pay attention to the state university’s flagship campus is a bonus, says Kellogg, who as a Springfield guy knows what it’s like to be ignored by people who think the state ends west of Interstate 495.

So there was some significance that Kirk Simon and Mark Miskin, buddies who left Franklin and Needham in 1977 to enroll at UMass, spent two hours driving to their alma mater Wednesday. It was somewhat bittersweet. Downtown Amherst is not the place they remember. The dive bars have given way to fern bars. The Drake is gone.

It was worth the trip. UMass didn’t play well, but managed to hold off Rhode Island for its 22d win of the year. Simon and Miskin plan to watch the NCAA tournament selection. Like Williams, they expect a better show this year.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.
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