Earning a spot in the AP top 25 for the first time in 15 years certainly is a proud moment for the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team and coach Derek Kellogg. But it comes with a bit of a downside, albeit one the school and its fans will gladly accept.
"It was nice to fly below the radar for a little while," Kellogg said Monday in a podcast with ESPN's Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg. "The ranking gets us some national attention and it kind of reminds people of the glory years at UMass back in the '90s when we were a top-20 team on a regular basis.
"I think it lends credence to the fact that UMass is a basketball school that is committed to men's basketball and that we have a great program, and that we play a fun and exciting style and obviously we can beat some of the top teams in the country."
The Minutemen are 6-0 after winning the Charleston Classic, a run that included an 81-65 win over then-No. 19 New Mexico and a 62-56 win over Clemson in Sunday night's championship game.
The start pushed UMass into the No. 24 spot in the AP poll, its first appearance in the rankings since the first regular-season poll of the 1998-99 season. That team, which included seniors Lari Ketner and Charlton Clarke, lost four of its first five games and finished the season 14-16. Coaches Bruiser Flint, Steve Lappas, Travis Ford and Kellogg hadn't gotten the Minutemen back in the top 25 since -- until Monday.
The Minutemen just missed making this week's USA Today coaches poll, finishing 26th in the rankings.
UMass already has knocked off two teams from the ACC (Clemson and Boston College), and one each from the SEC (LSU) and Big 10 (Nebraska). Every team the Minutemen have faced had been unbeaten entering the contest. While they have more than a week to rest on their laurels before playing at Eastern Michigan on Dec. 3, their challenging non-conference slate includes games against BYU (Dec. 7), Florida State (Dec. 21), Providence (Dec. 28) and at Ohio (Dec. 18). Then come the battles in the always-solid Atlantic 10.
In his podcast, Katz asked Kellogg how confident he was that his team could get through the non-conference games with strong enough momentum going into the Atlantic 10 season?
That's a good question because that left me sleepless quite a few nights," Kellogg said. "Even this first six-game stretch, if we were 4-2 I thought, you know what, we're in a good position moving forward. Being 6-0 is really great for us.
"It's a little bit of a coin flip in saying hopefully these guys all buy in or hopefully things work out the way they're supposed to. So I put together a schedule that says we can compete with these teams, but how many of these games are we going to win? Hopefully we can get our share and have a high RPI going into our league."
So far, so good as UMass is No. 2 nationally in RPI, trailing only Kansas.
Kellogg frequently stresses that his team play "UMass basketball". He explained to Katz and Greenberg what that means.
"I try to get our guys to buy into playing tough, hard-nosed defense both in the half court and the full court," he said. "We try to play fast paced actually on both ends of the floor, not just on offense when we try to get easy baskets in transition, but also pressing one way or another for 40 minutes.
"Sometimes it's trapping the ball and trying to create turnovers, other times it's to force tempo, and other times it's just to be a pest. So when we say 'UMass basketball,' our best chance to beat some of the teams we've played is to get them to play out of character, to push tempo and to force them to play a little faster."
With Kellogg a connection to the days when UMass being in the top 25 was automatic rather than an event, he takes particular pride in recapturing some of that buzz.
"To be able to do it at home, there's something special about that," he said.