The sting of their Atlantic-10 Conference tournament loss was still fresh, Selection Sunday was the next day, and University of Massachusetts head coach Derek Kellogg wasn’t quite sure how to play it.
The Minutemen had put together their second straight 20-win season, but Kellogg couldn’t say for certain it was enough to earn his team its first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 15 years.
They had an outside chance at an at-large bid.
“There was a small percentage,” Kellogg said. “I thought, ‘Maybe?’ ”
The fact there was a chance at all meant he wanted his team to have some hope.
“I don’t want to let the guys down now, so let me build them up and say there’s a chance,” Kellogg said.
After they left Barclays Center in Brooklyn — the site of UMass’s 71-62 loss to Virginia Commonwealth in the A-10 semifinals — Kellogg let his players go home and decompress. The plan was to watch Selection Show the next day at Kellogg’s house.
It was a low-key affair — family, friends, and the team. They watched the brackets fill up without them.
Like that, the room was airless. No one was more hurt than Chaz Williams.
“He left the house disappointed,” Kellogg said.
The thought stuck with Kellogg.
“Personally, I thought we were one game away from being an NCAA Tournament team,” he said.
The coach could pinpoint a number of missed opportunities.
The tournament loss to VCU. One-point losses to Charlotte and Temple. A 3-point midseason loss to George Washington.
At some point he had to stop.
“You can use that as motivation for next year to say ‘let’s not have that ever happen again,’ ” Kellogg said. “Let’s have that ugly reminder. You remember the way you felt? What do we do with it?”
Williams also had his own decisions to make.
The door to the NBA was open if Williams wanted to walk through it.
The 5-foot-9-inch point guard had just led UMass in scoring, assists, steals, and minutes, made the A-10 first team, and the A-10 all-tournament team for the second straight year.
But from all the information Kellogg had gathered, Williams would have been a second-round pick, which would have made for a harder road in the league.
Kellogg wanted to lay everything out for him, but in a way that didn’t seem like he was doing it for selfish reasons.
“The reality of it is, my job is just to get him the right information,” Kellogg said. “Sometimes when you’re the coach talking, it can get construed that you’re asking me to come back for yourself or the team.”
Kellogg made the options as plain as possible.
“The decision was, do you want to be a potential second-round pick or do you want to go back and do something special?” Kellogg said.
When Kellogg put it that way, Williams’s decision was easy.
Just three months later, the decision-making process started all over.
On his way to a basketball camp in Los Angeles, Williams got a call from a pro team in Turkey. It was offering $150,000, plus perks, for one season.
Williams had to consider what the deal would do not only for himself, but for his 3-year-old daughter Cheree and his mother Diane and his grandmother Emma, who did everything in their power to keep him on the right path growing up in Brooklyn after his father died.
“It was a tough decision all around,” Williams said. “For that type of money and my type of situation, it’s like a dream.”
The team kept sweetening the pot, offering to pay for his mother and daughter to join him.
“I was kind of nervous for a day or two there,” Kellogg said.
But Williams didn’t want to make a hasty decision.
“I had to wake up from a dream and before I even made any decisions I had to let go of the excitement,” Williams said.
He talked it over with his family and with Kellogg.
Attending UMass was its own investment for Williams.
He transferred after his freshman season at Hofstra amid a chaotic coaching situation. He sat out the requisite season, then jumped into the thick of a UMass team that was trying to rebuild.
In his first season, the Minutemen won 25 games — a 10-win improvement from the previous year — and reached the semifinals of the postseason NIT.
“We feel like we built a foundation,” Williams said. “You’ve got to crawl before you walk.”
The Minutemen are going at full speed this season, off to a 10-0 start and ranked nationally in the regular season for the first time since 1998-99. But Williams can still smell the NCAA Tournament berth that escaped UMass last season.
“I was just looking at it like, ever since I’ve been here, we haven’t accomplished nothing,” Williams said. “Since I’ve been here, we haven’t accomplished nothing significant, you know, where we can look back and say we did something or we left a legacy or we left a mark here on our school so we can come back or our kids can come back years down the line and still see something from it.”
Williams also wants to finish his degree. Kellogg knew that any decision Williams made would be based on more than just money.
“The things that were important to Chaz and his family, I think he does want to be on line to graduate,” he said. “He does want to do something special at a university and try to lead a program and a team back to national prominence and get to an NCAA Tournament.
“I explained to him, you’re on the verge of doing something not a lot of players have done here. You’re on the verge of taking a program and helping get a program back and resurrect a program.
“Let’s shoot for something special.”
Every so often, Kellogg will bring up the VCU game. Or the Temple game.
He’ll ask sharp questions to press on his team’s nerves.
It’s a reality check for a team that has a difficult conference schedule ahead.
“If I feel the team’s getting too big in their britches or we have a game coming up that we’re ‘supposed’ to win, let’s have an ugly reminder of maybe the last game of the year last year,” Kellogg said. “Just to say, ‘You know what, that’s not supposed to happen, so let’s not let it happen again.’
“It’s not mean-spirited, it’s a factual reality of something that happened. Because I told them I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t like when this happened. So if I didn’t like [it], I know you guys didn’t. So let’s not have that happen again. I like walking around [undefeated] and having people talking about my team in a nice way.”
Williams came back for a reason, and from practice to game day, his team can see it.
Kellogg goes to Williams to check the pulse of the team.
“What he’s done even better this year is every single day, not only is he coming with energy now, but he’s making sure his teammates [have it],’’ Kellogg said. “I think that’s the difference between a good point guard and a ‘change the complexion of a program’ type point guard. He’s not only taking himself to a certain level but he’s taking other guys with him and that’s special.”
On Dec. 7, Williams put up 32 points and had 15 assists against Brigham Young in a 105-96 victory at the MassMutual Center. He turned the ball over just once in 34 minutes.
“That was the most amazing performance I’ve seen out of a UMass player ever,” Kellogg said. “I played with Lou Roe and Marcus Camby, it was right up there with their best game ever.”
But what stood out just as much to Kellogg was seeing his undersized bulldog of a point guard get into a shoving match with one of BYU’s big men.
“I love it,” Kellogg said. “He exemplifies the way I want to be as a coach. We’re feisty, we’re tough, we bring energy and we’re not backing down from anybody. He brings the heart and soul of our team. That’s what we’re all about and it’s great to see all of our bigger guys backing him up.
“You’re not messing with Chaz. You’re not messing with our point guard.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.