RALEIGH, N.C. — Taking the floor five minutes after Duke’s practice ended, the UMass Minutemen emerged from a hallway leading toward the court to the scene of many blue-clad Blue Devils fans leaving PNC Arena.
Even though parking and admission was free Thursday, scores of spectators apparently had little interest in sticking around to watch the Minutemen work out. When it’s been 16 years since you’ve made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament — and 18 years after last winning a game there — respect isn’t automatically given, curiosity not even a drawing card.
Which seems fine with UMass. Without an opponent to prepare for until late Wednesday night — when Tennessee beat Iowa — the Minutemen focused on themselves this week. All the while, they couldn’t avoid hearing national analysts reacting to a seed some screamed as too high (No. 6 in the Midwest Regional), and many saying the Minutemen would lose Friday’s game anyway, regardless of opponent.
UMass does have at least one high-powered supporter. President Obama picked the Minutemen to win their opener in his bracket. But oddsmakers don’t agree; Tennessee is listed as a 4-point favorite, despite being the No. 11 seed. The other three No. 6 seeds? They were all favored by at least 3 points.
“They’re fully aware that maybe people think we’ve been over-seeded or that we might be the trendy upset pick,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “The kids are perceptive on that social media, they’re good.
“I saw two rats this morning on one show that picked us going pretty far, so maybe that’s good. Or maybe they were mice, I’m not sure.”
Kellogg, speaking to members of the media, laughed after saying that. But his message was clear: UMass is aware of what people are predicting, but nobody controls the Minutemen’s destiny more than the team itself.
And they’re ready to make everybody take notice.
“We plan on making a run, a real deep run, a run that’s possibly going to shock the world,” sophomore guard Derrick Gordon said. “We’re trying to make a statement.”
It starts Friday against Tennessee, which needed overtime to beat Iowa, 78-65, in Dayton, Ohio. The Volunteers (22-12) have won six of their last seven games, the lone loss a 56-49 defeat to No. 1-ranked Florida in last week’s SEC tournament. They come into the game — tip-off is expected at 2:45 p.m. — confident they can survive and advance.
When the bracket was unveiled, UMass (24-8) took note of the possible Tennessee matchup, and publicly hoped for it. They wanted an opportunity to avenge a tournament loss to Tennessee last season. That one came in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
The stakes are slightly higher this time around.
“It’s not necessarily a rematch, but it would be good to beat them guys after they defeated us last year,” said UMass senior guard Chaz Williams. “We’re a different team from last year, a totally different team. What Tennessee saw last year is not the same UMass they’ll see tomorrow.”
Tennessee returns its two leading scorers from last season’s 81-69 win over the Minutemen, and has been incredibly difficult to score on recently. The Volunteers’ last six opponents have managed just 38, 54, 45, 44, 56, and 65 points, and Iowa needed five extra minutes to get that many.
UMass has scored at least 65 points in 13 of its last 14 games (and had 62 in the other), so the Minutemen will look to push the pace and engage Tennessee in a track meet. It’s what Kellogg is hoping for.
“We’ve played well this year when we’ve had great energy, when it seems like our whole team, from the bench on down to the guys on the floor, are moving at a certain rate of speed, are connected as one on the defensive end, and then we’re pushing the ball and playing a fast pace on offense,” Kellogg said. “Those would be some telltale signs: The energy of how we come out, the commitment to rebounding and defense because of how good Tennessee is on the glass, and how tough they play defensively.
“If we do those things, I think we give ourselves a chance to win the game.”
The teams played one common opponent this season. UMass beat LSU in the second game of the season, 92-90; Tennessee went to Baton Rouge Jan. 7 and left with a 68-50 win. The Volunteers also have a 35-point win over Virginia, the top seed in the East Regional.
When Tennessee has been good this season, it’s been very good. But the Volunteers were a bubble team sent to Dayton for a reason. UMass might not have as much NCAA Tournament experience as Tennessee, but the Minutemen are eager to play, and ready to test themselves against another team from a conference that’s perceived to be better than the Atlantic 10 (although word spread quickly and excitedly during the early part of UMass’s Thursday practice that fellow A-10 member Dayton had knocked out Ohio State).
Emotion and adrenaline can be impactful intangibles during NCAA play.
“I want the guys to play, I want them to be excited. I’d rather them be a little more excited than come out apprehensive and tentative, because we’ve come out tentative a few times this year, and that really hasn’t worked. When we’re the aggressor and the more energized, excited team, I think we’ve played better, that’s when we’ve been a good team,” Kellogg said. “This is the time of year we’ve been waiting for. Not only a couple weeks, but 15 years. I think the guys understand that.”
They’ve waited long enough to get here. Raphiael Putney, the oldest UMass player, was 7 years old the last time the Minutemen played in the NCAA Tournament. The team’s three freshmen were still in diapers when UMass last won a game in the NCAAs, in 1996.
Now, the wait is over. The stay might be short, according to many of the talking heads. But if it’s not, the Minutemen will turn a memorable tournament appearance into an unforgettable one.
“We love it. A lot of people don’t expect us to be here, but we love it, so thank you to everybody that’s saying that. We love it,” Williams said. “It’s just fueling our fire. We’re trying to shock the world. What better time to do it than now?”