UMass hoops set to build on success

The only person more ready than Derek Kellogg for the start of UMass basketball practice might have been his wife. The coach joked that he was driving her crazy.

Coming off a season in which his team advanced all the way to the NIT Final Four -- beating Mississippi State, Seton Hall and Drexel before finally losing to Stanford at Madison Square Garden -- Kellogg is no longer on the hot seat he started last season on.

But the coach is making sure he manages expectations at the outset.

“It’s amazing how fast, in a good way, things can change,” he said last month at the Massachusetts basketball media day at Boston College. “You always want to be conscious to not get too ahead of yourself. To not feel that it’s too good or too bad.

“A former coach of mine and mentor used to say, ‘It’s never as good as it seems, it’s never as bad as it seems, and the middle’s reality.’ I want to make sure that the players on our team know that last year at this time it wasn’t quite as bad as people were making it, [and] it’s not quite as good as people want to build it up to be.”

UMass returns a strong core of players, including point guard and leading scorer Chaz Williams, and forwards Raphiael Putney and Terrell Vinson. After four years in Amherst, Kellogg is happy to finally have a system completely in place.

“I think I know our players better than I ever have, because we’ve now spent four and maybe five years with some them,” Kellogg said. “On a personal level I feel really good about our kids and our team. On a basketball level obviously they’ve proven some things but I still feel like we’ve still got a long way to go.

“The one thing I like is that we now have kind of the UMass book of how I do things and what we’re gonna do. If we continue to improve and get better, I think we have a chance to have a pretty good squad if everybody buys in and is ready to go.”

The Minutemen will be tested even more this season, as newcomers Butler and Virginia Commonwealth raise the level of competition in the Atlantic 10.

“We joked that it’s great for the conference, probably not great for coaches,” Kellogg said. “What you have now is you have a bunch of coaches in the league that are kind of withstanding the test of time -- I’m hoping to be one of those guys -- you have two new guys that have turned down not just good jobs but great, high-major jobs, because I think they have great situations.

“Now we have some really top, top basketball teams in our conference.”

The Minutemen finished 2011-12 strong, knocking off Duquesne and No. 24 Temple in the A-10 tourney and then making their run in the NIT. This season, they were picked to finish fifth in the A-10, behind St. Joseph’s, Saint Louis, VCU and Temple, and ahead of Butler.

Kellogg wasn’t taking the credit.

“It comes back to the players. Those guys played. They competed. It was good to see that the kids bought it and fought every night out,” Kellogg said. “Whether we won or lost, if that’s what people see UMass basketball as, then I’ll live with that as the coach.”

To improve on last season’s finish, Kellogg says, it’s simple: “We go even harder. We go even tougher. We’re even meaner when we go to practice every day. We take the energy that they have, which has been phenomenal to this point, and we channel that in the right way to the basketball floor.”

UMass will help kick-start the season Tuesday on national TV, matching up with Harvard in ESPN’s Tip-Off hoops marathon. They play at 10 a.m.

No one is more ready to kick things off than Kellogg.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.