AMHERST — A technical glitch let the UMass Minutemen celebrate twice on Sunday for the CBS cameras. But hey, when you’ve waited 16 long years to let loose, what’s wrong with that?
The Minutemen are dancing once again, finally back in the NCAA Tournament. UMass was given the No. 6 seed in the Midwest Regional and will play on Friday in Raleigh, N.C. The opponent will be determined in Dayton, Ohio, on Wednesday; a pair of No. 11 seeds, Tennessee and Iowa, will play for the right to face the Minutemen.
“It’s a wonderful feeling, it’s a party, it’s a party environment,” said fifth-year senior forward Sampson Carter. “Now we’re ready to go out and prove a lot of people wrong.”
The Minutemen, watching the selection show at local eatery Amherst Brewing Company, erupted when the school’s name was initially shown on the broadcast. But apparently the television graphic jumped the gun; the game that should have been unveiled first was another Midwest tilt in Raleigh, third-seeded Duke and No. 14 Mercer. After that game was announced, only then was UMass put back on the screen — more celebrating from the players — with the Iowa-Tennessee game included.
It stood as confirmation to what everybody had speculated and argued as the season played out: that UMass was one of the top 68 teams in the country, worthy of inclusion in the one tournament every college basketball team sets as a goal before the season.
“That was an emotional, great feeling to see UMass pop up on the screen,” coach Derek Kellogg said. “Vindication today. It’s been an emotional time and we’re excited to be where we are.”
There had been 15 selection shows that didn’t reward the Minutemen since UMass’s most recent NCAA Tournament appearance in 1998, which ended an impressive streak of seven straight trips. The 1990s were the golden age of UMass basketball: The 1992 team advanced to the Sweet 16, the 1995 squad went to the Elite Eight, and the 1996 team, ranked No. 1 for much of the season, made it all the way to the Final Four.
Kellogg was a scrappy point guard on the 1992 and 1995 teams. Now, in his sixth year as the coach at his alma mater, he’s placed the Minutemen squarely in the middle of March Madness.
“I’d like to go out there and win a game or two, see what happens,” Kellogg said. “Maybe we can make a run at this thing because we’re capable, if things are going well.”
The NCAA berth caps what’s been a special season for the Minutemen. They’re 24-8, after losing to George Washington on Friday in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament. UMass won its first 10 games and started 16-1, a run that put the Minutemen back into the Associated Press national rankings for the first time since the 1997-98 season.
They fell out of the poll with back-to-back conference road losses in late January, but always stayed among the NCAA Tournament bracket projections because of a strong overall body of work. Nonconference wins over Nebraska, New Mexico, Providence, and Brigham Young — all of which made the tournament — helped their strength of schedule. Along with a regular-season win over Saint Joseph’s, the Minutemen beat three conference champions: from the A-10, Big East (Providence), and Mountain West (New Mexico).
“We scheduled to be an NCAA Tournament team this year, that was the goal of it all,” Kellogg said recently. “I think we exceeded some expectations of everybody in the [nonconference] season, but we scheduled that way, to play tough games, some on the road, some at home, neutral sites, and we were fortunate to get those games.”
UMass was one of six A-10 teams to get NCAA berths. Maybe life in that conference this season — in addition to UMass’s nonconference schedule — will serve as good preparation for the NCAA Tournament. It likely matters not to the Minutemen, who are simply thrilled that the drought is over and they have a spot in the field. Even if they don’t know whom they’ll be playing.
“We had a great year, we beat some big teams, and as you can see at the end of the year, a lot of those teams won their conference, so it shows what type of team we are,” Carter said. “We took some punches, but now we finally get a chance to show how really tough we are.”