SPRINGFIELD — The University of Massachusetts wears its new uniforms well. The home jerseys are still white with maroon trim, and to the naked eye they look just like the old ones. But now there’s this big bull’s-eye on the back.
If the Minutemen felt targeted in their first home game since joining the Top 25, they sure didn’t act wary on Saturday afternoon. Playing at the MassMutual Center — also known as the team’s home court away from home — in the third annual Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase, No. 21 UMass kept Brigham Young at arm’s length most of the way and rolled to a 105-96 victory.
The Minutemen benefitted from a breakout game by Chaz Williams, who after a couple of quiet games exploded for career highs of 32 points and a school-record-tying 15 assists. Everything the mini-maestro did drew a roar from the sellout crowd of 7,331, which witnessed UMass — ranked for the first time since 1998 — boost its record to 8-0, the program’s best start since the 1995-96 Final Four season.
A national ranking, an unbeaten record, a packed house, and echoes of the glorious past are heady stuff for Derek Kellogg’s charges, but the coach is satisfied that the Minutemen are taking it all in stride. “I haven’t heard much talk around the locker room about being ranked,” he said. “It’s more like ‘What’s next?’ ”
That’s not to say UMass is without long-term goals.
“We know there’s a target on our back, but we still have a target on everybody else’s back,” said Williams. “We’re chasing one thing, and that’s making it to the tournament and a national championship.”
Early on, Raphiael Putney became the Minutemen’s spark by looking like he’d matured into the player he was as a sophomore.
That might sound like a backhanded compliment, unless you saw the energetic, almost unguardable slasher/shooter he was two seasons ago and the timid, sometimes invisible player he devolved into last year.
Putney’s initial damage came from the free throw line, but it was how he got there that mattered. Twice he was hacked while soaring high above the rim on alley-oop attempts. Neither try went in, but three of his four freebies did. And so did his two straight 3-pointers, both taken in rhythm after slick ball movement by the Minutemen. The treys lifted UMass out of a tie game and made it 14-8, and the visitors never caught up.
A brief “BYU! BYU!” chant broke out from one corner of the building after the Cougars (7-3) pulled within 5 points late in the half, and it was drowned out first by boos, then by cheers as the home fans watched the Minutemen extend their lead to 14 points before settling for an 11-point edge at intermission.
BYU made another run right after the break, scoring the first three buckets of the half as UMass committed consecutive turnovers and hoisted up a bad shot.
But Kellogg called for a timeout — “nothing X’s and O’s,” he said, “it was more, ‘Settle down’ ” — and UMass pulled away from there.
The catalyst, as usual, was Williams. He hit a couple of 3-pointers in the half, the latter giving UMass its biggest lead at 90-73. The senior point guard also took the ball strong to the hoop against the BYU zone, sometimes resulting in his own baskets, sometimes in easy buckets for teammates.
“Honestly, I’m not really a big point guy,” he said. “I’m more impressed by the 15 assists than anything. You know, just getting my guys involved and having them feel comfortable is more exciting to me than scoring.”
Both contribute to victories, as does hitting free throws when an opponent is desperately trying to get back in the game by sending you to the line.
Williams hit four straight on one-and-ones late in the game, and when the final free throw hit nothing but net, a leather-lung in the stands spotted Celtics president of basketball operations and BYU alum Danny Ainge seated at courtside. “Hey Danny,” bellowed the fan, “you should draft this guy!”