AMHERST - The business of returning University of Massachusetts basketball to its wildly successful days of a decade and a half ago is a methodical process for coach Derek Kellogg. It’s an assignment that has turned into a personal crusade, because the coach was part of that renaissance in the early 1990s.
Three non-winning seasons, a 19-29 Atlantic 10 record, and a slide into regional insignificance have warmed the seat for Kellogg, who fully realizes that the fan base expects a winner, and the fact that the Minutemen have been lapped by Xavier, Temple, and Dayton has turned them impatient.
This is a critical season for Kellogg. His fingerprints are all over the program. These are his guys, and what he needs for a resurgence is a leader, a point guard who can spark his up-tempo style with the fearlessness and heart that exemplified those 1990s teams.
He may have found such a conductor in Chaz Williams, a 5-foot 9-inch sophomore transfer from Hofstra, whose Brooklyn upbringing is apparent from the moment he speaks. He brings a New York bravado to Amherst, and his leadership and passion are exactly what Kellogg believes will push the Minutemen back among the elite teams of the Atlantic 10.
After a coaching change at Hofstra, Williams decided it was time to leave New York, and UMass was far enough away to offer a new cultural experience but close enough for the occasional visit home.
“I’m from Brooklyn, N.Y., so I’m pretty much ready for anything,’’ said Williams. “But I can’t go home as much. Back at Hofstra, I used to go home a lot.
“I’m happy that I’m far away because now I don’t have to go home, I can just go to the gym and work out.’’
“He carries himself like a New York City point guard, a guy that has a little chip on his shoulder,’’ said Kellogg. “He talks with a swagger. And every coach in the Colonial [Athletic Association] said, ‘If you had a chance to get Chaz Williams, you’d better take him.’ ’’
Williams, whose upper torso is dominated by tattoos, walks with the confidence of someone who has spent his life trying to prove he can play with the big boys. Nate Robinson walked into the Celtics’ locker room with an identical strut, determined to prove he could play among the giants.
While Robinson’s off-court antics may have led to his Boston exit, Williams has taken the positive aspects of Robinson’s game and funneled them to his own. He resembles Robinson so much so that his teammates call him “Little Nate,’’ but he fully realizes that point guard responsibilities encompass much more than canning 3-pointers and converting fast-break dunks.
The Minutemen need a distributor and a stabilizing force.
“The biggest things have been his leadership and his energy,’’ said Kellogg, a UMass point guard from 1991-95. “Those are some things that are hard to teach and coach somebody, but he has a natural ability to be charismatic and bring energy to practice every day.
“He has a chance to be a very good player for us if he continues those habits.’’
While the atmosphere was rather casual in Amherst before a recent practice, there is an undeniable reality that this is a crucial season for Kellogg and the program. While Xavier is heavily favored to win the Atlantic 10 and perhaps make a deep NCAA Tournament run, the rest of the conference is filled with improving upstarts.
UMass lost leading scorer Anthony Gurley, who essentially was a one-man team last season - the lone Minuteman to average double figures in scoring. All of the supporting cast returns, but only junior swingman Javorn Farrell averaged more than one assist, leaving a gaping hole for a point guard.
Williams was named to the CAA All-Freshman team two years ago, averaging 9.8 points and 2.8 assists. When Tom Pecora was replaced as Hofstra coach by Mo Cassara, Williams consulted with his mother, Diane, and decided to leave.
He is the youngest of three children, raised by Diane since his father died when Williams was 9. Williams bonded even more with his mother, especially on lonely game nights when he was unable to play as a transfer.
“Most of the time at nights, I used to go home and call my mom and we would just have long conversations and she’d tell me this is for the better,’’ he said. “And this is a year that could make me or break me. It made me into a better person.’’
Williams is determined to make this UMass thing work, and the support of his family has prepared him for the challenge.
“Without both of my parents, it kind of hurt me, but it helped me grow into the man I am today,’’ he said. “I had to grow up faster and I had to become a man early. That gives me the attitude I have now.
“My mom and my grandmom are the two main people in my life I really look up to. My grandmother, she doesn’t know much about basketball, she just knows scoring and winning. But she always calls me with motivation.’’
With his close-knit unit behind him, Williams is prepared to accept the responsibility of leading the Minutemen back to prosperity. Kellogg’s record is 39-53, and it includes a demoralizing loss to Fordham last March that ended the Rams’ 41-game conference losing streak. UMass followed by getting pounded, 78-50, by Dayton in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.
“Having played here, a lot of people continue to have a view of UMass, asking me, ‘When are you going to get it back to the ’90s?’ ’’ Kellogg said. “We were No. 1 in the country and we were probably the only program to have that success coming from where UMass was.
“My goal is to get us to a certain point and really build a program, and hopefully someday we’d all love to have a magical run and something special can happen.’’
Because the Minutemen are coming off three consecutive nonwinning seasons, expectations are tempered, but Kellogg believes Williams will thrive in such circumstances.
“He can be a kid that can feed off the noise and can be that kid that has a chance to be one of those [great] players here at UMass,’’ Kellogg said. “I love that he’s my leader.
“I wouldn’t say the guy’s an angel, but he’s a good kid, he’s charismatic. The dude likes to play the game. I like the fact that he’s an extension of me right now.’’