AMHERST -- University of Massachusetts fans weathering one of the first winter storms of the year were in for a treat Saturday afternoon. The first 3,000 diehards at the Mullins Center were given Derek Kellogg bobblehead dolls.
Though flattered, the UMass coach suggested -- not without legitimacy -- that the bobblehead more closely resembled another leader: Richard Milhous Nixon.
Nixon, of course, had to step down from his coaching position, which led to the presidency of Gerald Ford. Kellogg, who followed a Ford (Travis), is not in any imminent danger of being forced out of his position, but Saturday's listless 69-55 loss to St. Bonaventure had him, well, shaking his head.
"I thought we got beat in every aspect of the game tonight," Kellogg said. "What it really comes down to in conference play is toughness."
In this Atlantic 10 opener, the 7-7 (0-1) Minutemen were clearly out-toughed by the 8-4 (1-0) Bonnies. Any time there was a contested rebound or a loose ball on the floor, it seemed the guys getting there first were wearing the brown uniforms of the visitors, some sartorial hybrid of vintage San Diego Padres and Dunkin Donuts.
"We're not the biggest team, and we're not the most athletic team," St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt said. "We've got to be the tougher team."
Schmidt, a native of North Attleboro and a Boston College alum, clearly walks the walk -- or at least limps it. While Kellogg was bobbling, Schmidt was hobbling, thanks to a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in practice a few weeks ago. With his right foot encased in a huge gray bandage, Schmidt spent the 40 minutes of game time repeatedly hopping up and down the sideline and occasionally pounding the scorer's table. When the game was over, he got on his little tricycle-like device to go through the line for handshakes, and he promptly tumbled to the floor.
St. Bonaventure senior center Youssou Ndoye, a 7-footer from Senegal who, by the wonders of modern college athletics, finds himself spending his winters in Olean, New York, said he is inspired by Schmidt's example. "Every time I look at him, I just shake my head," Ndoye said. "I really feel bad for him, for the unfortunate injury. It just gets me going. If he's out there trying to help us out, the least we can do is play hard for him."
Hard for Ndoye, the A-10 leader in rebounding and blocked shots coming into the contest, meant a dominating 14-point, 13-rebound, three-block effort.
UMass, which fell into a tone-setting 7-0 hole, rallied to take a brief lead in the first half before they trudged to the locker room with a 28-19 deficit. The Minutemen would close the gap to three, seven minutes into the second half, on a 3-pointer by Jabarie Hinds, but then the Bonnies stomped their way to a 17-1 run that put the game away.
Down the stretch, the Mullins Center was as quiet as the Dubois Library, which famously had to be surrounded by fencing years ago, when a few bricks fell from its sides. On Saturday, the masonry came from the Minutemen, whose 4-for-22 shooting from 3-point land only sounded that good because of two very late makes long after the game was decided. UMass came in to the contest with an abysmal 29.3 percent shooting from behind the arc, which got worse. The Minutemen are giving new meaning to the term "outside shot."
The toughness gap was the larger issue, though. After a mediocre 7-6 performance against a tough nonconference slate (2-5 in their previous seven games), the Minutemen seemed ready for the new year and the start of conference play. There was the inevitable talk of the "fresh start" and the "second season." That optimism was gone almost from the opening tip.
"They beat us today," Kellogg said. "They got more rebounds, loose balls, 50-50 balls. They played a little tougher. That's something that needs to be rectified -- and rather quickly. When UMass has been good -- and you can go back as long as you want to -- we're usually the more aggressive team. Today, it was kind of like watching paint dry."
Kellogg acknowledged his team's personality is a work in progress. "I've been really working on those guys: their energy, their verbal communications skills," he said. "We're still trying to find our identity. I know it's hard to say 14 games in, but we're still working."
UMass, a charter member of the Atlantic 10, began its 39th season of league play with Saturday's dud. In the league's history, no team has ever matched the dominance UMass displayed from 1991-92 through 1995-96, when the Minutemen won five straight regular season and five straight A-10 tourney titles. That culminated in the 1996 Final Four year, which made them the only Atlantic 10 team ever to get that far.
But since that time, UMass has only one shared regular season A-10 title and no A-10 tourney championships. The Minutemen did make it back to the NCAA tournament last year for the first time in 18 seasons, almost completely on the strength of a tremendous, nonconference run. To get back to the Dance this year will require some A-10 attention.
Right now, March looks a lot more like spring break than Big Dance.