NEW YORK — The journey that has brought the UMass Minutemen back into the NCAA Tournament after a lengthy absence didn’t start with three fifth-year seniors, or a beefed-up nonconference schedule, or a blistering 16-1 start, or even frustratingly close Dance calls the past two seasons that became motivation.
All those things helped, certainly, but let’s go back a number of years. Before Derek Kellogg became the program’s 21st coach on April 23, 2008. Before he participated, as a player and team captain, during the golden era of UMass basketball in the mid-1990s, a time flush with NCAA Tournament appearances and deep runs. Before he was a 1,000-point scorer at Cathedral High School in his native Springfield, Mass.
Prior to coaching him at Cathedral, Kevin Kennedy remembers first seeing Kellogg play as a sixth-grader. One scene from that initial CYO game, at a gym with no visible game clock and Kellogg running the point, Kennedy still can’t shake.
“He was yelling over at the scorekeeper, ‘How much time? How much time?’ ” Kennedy said, taking a break recently from watching Kellogg conduct a UMass practice at the Mullins Center. “He was always tougher and smarter than everybody else.”
That’s been a successful combination for Kellogg, a competitive drive that’s brought him back to his alma mater, taking over when Travis Ford became the coach at Oklahoma State. Armed with grit and a dream, Kellogg set out to return UMass to national relevance. For many college basketball fans, that can mean any number of things — national television appearances, sold-out home games, impact recruits, a buzz about the program. But it also must mean one thing: playing in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite losing to George Washington, 85-77, on Friday in the Atlantic 10 tournament, UMass (24-8) will hear its name called when CBS unveils the NCAA bracket on Sunday at 6 p.m. The Minutemen will be an at-large selection, with most bracketologists predicting a seed in the 7-8 range. The CBS selection show lasts an hour; the time it took to put the Minutemen back into the field of 68? That took much, much longer. Their last appearance came in 1998.
“For me, it’s going to be special. I’ve been there a lot of times, as a player, as an assistant coach. Never been there as a head coach, and that will feel really good,” Kellogg said. “For us to do it here, with not [having] every exact thing that you need all the time, to overcome some things and make it happen, means that we worked hard, we scrapped.”
Kellogg had his eye on the Minutemen job even before Ford left (he spent eight seasons as an assistant at Memphis under former UMass coach John Calipari), and John McCutcheon, the school’s athletic director, had his eye on Kellogg. McCutcheon wasn’t at UMass while Kellogg was playing (1992-95), but knew of the connection, both to the school and the area, and wanted someone who was committed to the cause.
“We always had Derek on the radar screen, because he was young and he was developing, and obviously his ties here with the community and his experience here with our program as a player,” McCutcheon said. “I could genuinely see his passion for UMass. Yeah, he hadn’t been a head coach, but I just really felt it would be a good fit. You never know in this process, there’s always some risk, whether the fit’s going to be right, or they’re ready, but when I considered everything, I felt that Derek was the right guy at that point in time for the program.”
In a way, McCutcheon — who’s not only Kellogg’s boss but his next-door neighbor in Amherst; Kellogg bought Ford’s house — was the first to hear Kellogg’s vision for the program. The next group to hear the sales pitch were recruits.
Like most other coaches, Kellogg was selling recruits his dream of winning conference titles and playing in NCAA Tournaments. But he had something lots of other coaches didn’t have: proof that it could be done at UMass, because it had been done before, and Kellogg was one of the players doing it. His teams went to the NCAAs all four seasons, advancing to the Sweet 16 as a freshman and the Elite Eight as a senior. The year after Kellogg graduated, the Minutemen went to the Final Four.
“If it didn’t happen, then it would have been really difficult to sell, but at least there was a history behind it, to say that it’s possible, it can be done, with a lot of hard work, dedication, the right kids, it can be done,” Kellogg said. “When I tell the story of how it was, it’s believable. I was there, I stood there, I sat there, I was part of it. It was something that was possible.”
The pitch worked, even if the early results weren’t favorable. Kellogg’s first full recruiting class featured five players, three of whom went on to score 1,000 career points and a fourth, current fifth-year senior Sampson Carter, closing in at 957.
There were growing pains, the Minutemen going 12-18, 12-20, and 15-15 during Kellogg’s first three seasons. But by the fourth season, with transfer point guard Chaz Williams in place, the Minutemen seemed primed for a run at the NCAA Tournament. They came up just short, but then advanced to the NIT semifinals, a 25-win season, just the 15th 20-win campaign in UMass history.
It’s up to 17 now, with UMass going 21-12 last year, again flirting with an NCAA bid (“I knew we might need one more win,” Kellogg said) before settling for another NIT appearance that had the opposite feeling than the year before. Two seasons ago, making the NIT semifinals signified a big step for the program. Last year, when the Minutemen failed to hear their name called on Selection Sunday, Williams left Kellogg’s house — where the team gathered to watch — with tears streaming down his cheeks.
“It was a huge disappointment when they didn’t call our name, and I vowed that it wasn’t going to happen again,” Williams said.
The feeling, now that Williams knows his team is most definitely dancing?
“It means that everything we came here and worked for has been accomplished,” Williams said. “Just making the tournament isn’t the only thing we want. Obviously, we want to win games and go pretty far. But seeing that it hasn’t happened here since 1998, it’ll be a huge accomplishment.”
Two straight 20-win seasons provided Ford with an opportunity to go elsewhere, which he took. Three straight might do the same for Kellogg, who is under contract through the 2016-17 season. Like a good neighbor, McCutcheon is aware of that possible predicament, and isn’t hiding from the subject. He said discussions are held regularly with Kellogg about the program, the resources it has, and what it still needs. A $28 million practice and training facility for the men’s and women’s basketball teams — the UMass Basketball Champions Center — is under construction.
“We’d be naive to think that somebody isn’t going to make a phone call and talk to him,” McCutcheon said. “He understands we want to keep him, he understands we want to make a commitment that he’s happy being here. We’re having those conversations more proactively than reactively.”
Those discussions can wait, because there are some important games — at least one, anyway — left to play this season for UMass.
Kellogg loves everything about the NCAA Tournament. The CBS musical intro, the selection show, the games (Kellogg played in 10 of them for UMass), “One Shining Moment.” Especially “One Shining Moment” — David Barrett’s original version, no offense to Teddy Pendergrass or Luther Vandross — with the song set to clips from tournament games that season, and shown after the championship game.
“What the video shows is all the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into a season,” Kellogg said. “You can almost feel the summer workouts, the intense practices, the conference tournaments, all kind of rolled into 2½ minutes. I think we all get somewhat emotional when we watch it.”
Millions watch it, but you can’t appear in the video unless you’re an NCAA Tournament team, and even then there’s no guarantee. All you’d like is the chance to star, and for the first time since 1998, UMass has finally given itself an opportunity. Forgive Kellogg if he takes a moment to reflect after the details — who, where, when — are disclosed Sunday night.
“I played here when we were going to the NCAA Tournament frequently, the gym was sold out, and what’s special for me is I kind of sold these guys on a vision of what UMass could become, of what it was. To see it come to fruition for me is special, because each and every one of these guys, I’ve sat in their living room and got them to come here,” Kellogg said. “We just can’t settle and rest on our laurels. It’s nice that we’ve had a good run to this point, but how far can this team go? I think we can do something special.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.