RALEIGH, N.C. — Located in Amherst, UMass is sometimes regarded like it’s Crimea, a far-off territory that has been annexed by a foreign power.
It’s unfortunate and fuels the frustration and paranoia of UMass fans.
So, Mr. and Miss Boston Sports Fan, I implore you to take a break from the Bruins bearing down before the playoffs, the Patriots’ offseason arms race with the Broncos, Grady Sizemore’s candidacy for the spring training Hall of Fame, and the Celtics’ march to the NBA draft lottery.
Marcus Camby, Lou Roe, Edgar Padilla, and Carmelo Travieso aren’t walking through that door, but your State U is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. Time to break out a tattered “Refuse to Lose” T-shirt and pay attention.
Unless you’re 25 or younger, you probably remember when UMass basketball was all the rage in the mid-1990s, the pinnacle being a Final Four appearance in 1996. (The school was later forced to vacate that appearance due to the illegal acceptance of gifts by star center Camby.) The UMass bandwagon was standing room only back then. As the program’s prominence faded, so did the interest inside of Route 495.
If you’re inclined to indulge in the annual bacchanal of buzzer-beaters, bracket-busters, and broken dreams at least make the emotional investment in supporting the school your taxes fund. UMass coach Derek Kellogg and the three seniors — guard Chaz Williams and forwards Sampson Carter and Raphiael Putney — who have helped him resurrect the program deserve to be recognized.
The sixth seed in the Midwest Region, UMass (24-8) makes its return to the NCAA Tournament on Friday at 2:45 p.m. at PNC Arena, where it will face Tennessee, which defeated Iowa, 78-65, in a First Four game in Dayton, Ohio, to advance to the real tournament.
Stepping on the NCAA logo-adorned court is a moment that existed only in Kellogg’s head when he took over the reins of his alma mater on April 23, 2008. The roaring echoes of the glory days of John Calipari, which Kellogg experienced as a player, had become a faint whisper, Amherst an afterthought on the big-time basketball landscape, despite a few NIT appearances under Travis Ford.
Kellogg is proud of the restoration, but said the discussion of UMass being back in the NCAA Tournament should be on the precious present, to borrow a phrase from another UMass alum, Rick Pitino.
“I think it’s great for UMass and the community and also our program to solidify a lot of the hard work that’s gone into building a program — three straight 20-win seasons, but our first NCAA Tournament,” Kellogg said. “I would like to write our own legacy, our own history, as far as where we’re not always looking back, but now we’re looking forward.
“Hopefully, this is an opportunity to get UMass where we’re a team that is continuously looking for NCAA Tournament appearances and postseason play. A lot of hard work by the guys. They had a great vision of what UMass could become or could we kind of rejuvenate it like it once was.”
It’s fitting that Kellogg with his five o’clock shadow and slicked-back hair slightly resembles Don Draper from “Mad Men” these days. He certainly sold his seniors a vision of restoring UMass basketball, recruiting Carter and Putney and securing Williams as a transfer from Hofstra.
“He definitely sold us the dream,” said Carter, who came to UMass in 2009 and was a medical redshirt in 2011. “I just didn’t know at that time that it would be so hard and that it would take so much time. I kind of feel like we’re a little late, but at the same time Rome wasn’t built in a day. I think it’s perfect timing that we’re here now before we leave. We’re painting a perfect picture for the younger guys to follow. We’re leaving a steppingstone for them to follow.”
Carter and Putney are the type of players who are the mortar of a restoration process.
Putney is one of 21 players in UMass history to score more than 1,000 points and grab 600 rebounds. Carter is UMass’s third-leading scorer this season (10.5 points per game) and will break a tie with Roe for third on UMass’s all-time games played list on Friday.
No player has had a larger hand in restoring UMass to its former luster than Williams, a dynamic, diminutive guard who slices and weaves his way through defenses like that guy who cut you off on the Southeast Expressway.
Boston sports fans love their little big men — Doug Flutie, Troy Brown, Wes Welker, Dustin Pedroia, Brad Marchand to name a few — and the 5-foot-9-inch Williams fits that mold. He is small in stature only.
A three-time Atlantic 10 first-team selection, Williams is the school’s all-time leader in assists.
But his biggest assist has been in rebuilding the UMass program.
It’s not a coincidence that the three seasons he has played for UMass after transferring have all been 20-plus-win campaigns.
Williams, who has a 3-year-old daughter, Cheree, turned down a $150,000 deal from a Turkish club to return to UMass and try to get the Minutemen back into the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s priceless. Some things money can’t buy, and this right here is one of them, man,” said Williams. “It’s just like, wow, we’re finally here, man. All these years, all this hard work, we’re finally here.”
There is a thought that UMass might not stay here for long.
Kellogg acknowledged his players were aware they’re a trendy upset pick.
If the Minutemen do defeat Tennessee, they’re likely staring at a matchup with college basketball royalty, Duke, only about 22 miles away from Cameron Indoor Stadium.
That’s just the way it goes for UMass, which seems to have to scratch and claw for every bit of respect and support it gets, inside and outside of its own state.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.