AMHERST — Even though it’s been 16 years since the University of Massachusetts last played in the NCAA Tournament, one of the Minutemen starters got a taste of the Madness two seasons ago.
Derrick Gordon began his college career at Western Kentucky, and during his freshman year, the Hilltoppers earned a No. 16 seed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament and were sent to Dayton, Ohio, for a play-in game. They beat Mississippi Valley State before losing to top-seeded Kentucky, which went on to win the national championship.
Of the 12 players on the UMass roster — a group that includes three fifth-year seniors and a combined 811 college games played — Gordon is the only one to appear in an NCAA Tournament game.
That will change on Friday, when the Minutemen open NCAA Tournament play with a Midwest Regional game in Raleigh, N.C. The sixth-seeded Minutemen (24-8) will meet the winner of Wednesday night’s play-in game between Iowa (20-12) and Tennessee (21-12). Friday’s tip is expected to come around 2:45 p.m.; Duke plays Mercer at 12:15 p.m. in the first game.
Gordon, a sophomore who has started all 32 games for UMass after sitting out last season as a transfer, is averaging 9.3 points per game. The 6-foot-3-inch guard loves to slash to the basket and has the team’s sweetest floating jumper. But this week, as the Minutemen prepare for an unknown opponent, he’ll double as NCAA Tournament story teller, because none of his teammates have ever walked in Gordon’s Dance shoes before.
“It’s not like a regular-season game. It’s not like any other tournament in the country,” Gordon said. “They’re going to know once they get out there, because everything is different — the floor, the crowd, everything.”
Gordon isn’t entirely alone. UMass coach Derek Kellogg participated in 10 NCAA Tournament games while playing for the Minutemen from 1992-95, and 18 more games as an assistant coach (one at George Mason, 17 at Memphis). He knows that, despite his team’s overall experience — the five starters have spent a combined 21 years in college — the inexperience when it comes to the NCAA Tournament can lead to lots of questions. Gordon can provide some important answers.
“I’ve talked to him about that,’’ said Kellogg. “He’s really the only player with NCAA experience, so I thought it would be good for him to spend some time with the guys or even as a group, let them know the feeling of what it is, the time restraints on the main floor, the hustle and bustle that leads up to it, and the distractions that can affect how you play, so that won’t come into play. Last thing he can tell them is how intense those games are, the level of play you need to win and advance. He’s been there, and I think he’ll be a good sounding board for some of the guys.”
Gordon was a four-star recruit at Western Kentucky, and wound up being the first true freshman in school history to lead the team in scoring (11.8 points per game). He had 11 points and 11 rebounds in the 59-58 comeback win over Mississippi Valley State, then scored 12 points in an 81-66 loss to Kentucky.
He remembers the big stage, the bright lights, the loud, large crowd, and Big Blue Nation every direction he looked. An NCAA Tournament game is not like a typical game, but having played in two of them, Gordon said that’s what the Minutemen should try to make it become on Friday.
“I was telling them that, once the first four minutes fly by, it’s going to be a regular game,” Gordon said. “You’ve got to keep composed. There’s going to be a lot going on out there.”
It’s enough to intimidate a lot of teams, especially ones without tournament experience. A calming influence is required, and with three captains who are fifth-year seniors — Sampson Carter, Raphiael Putney, and Chaz Williams — there hasn’t been much of a need for Gordon to be a vocal leader. This week, though, he’ll be expected to speak up.
“I told him if there’s anything he feels we should know he should tell us and let us know,” said Williams, a prolific talker from Brooklyn who leads the Minutemen in scoring at 15.8 points per game. “Coach has given [Gordon] a leadership role as far as understanding where we’ve been and him having that experience. He’s been vocal, explaining to the guys what it will be like: Every play counts, the media is crazy there, and you’ve just got to stay within yourself, you can’t get lost in everything else that’s going on.”
It’s one thing to talk about playing in an NCAA Tournament game. Gordon can pass along every worthy nugget from his Western Kentucky days two years ago, and give his teammates a first-person account of what they’ll have in store Friday. Some is bound to be helpful. But it’s quite another to get on the floor and feel the tournament, to hear it, to live it.
“Just go out there and give it your all, because I told them, I’m going to lay my body on the line, every game, every minute, every second that I’m out there,” Gordon said. “I’m going to do whatever I can for us to win the game, whether it’s scoring or defense, I’m going to put my body on the line, and they’re going to do the same for me.
“We can do something special, and I’m going to keep preaching that until we play our first game. Right now I’m just excited because it’s my second go-round, and I know we can make a lot of big things happen.”
Correction: Derrick Gordon’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.