UMass takes time to revel in return

AMHERST, Mass. -- The wait is over. The weight is gone.

Sixteen years later, the University of Massachusetts Minutemen are back in the NCAA tournament, and you could almost sense coach Derek Kellogg taking the boulder off his shoulder.

“To me, we’re back where we belong,” said a jubilant Kellogg Sunday night just moments after finding out the NCAA selection committee had awarded UMass with a No. 6 seed in the Midwest Region. The 24-8 Minutemen will play in the Big Dance for the first time since 1998.

On Friday in Raleigh, N.C., they will play the winner of Wednesday’s First Four game in Dayton, Ohio, between 11-seeds Iowa and Tennessee. Should the Minutemen prevail, they would likely face college basketball icon Duke, a No. 3 seed facing off against No. 14 Mercer.

But for the Minutemen players, coaches and a hungry fan base that thronged the Amherst Brewing Company Sunday night, this was a moment to savor.

“It came at the perfect time,” fifth-year senior Sampson Carter said. “We grinded for four years. Now we’re at the last year, and we’re finally here. So it’s perfect.”

“My heart was pounding every time a name was called,” fellow senior Raphiael Putney added. “We finally got called!”

Senior leader Chaz Williams also admitted some elevated EKG activity. “Not nervous,” he insisted. “Just more excited. My heart is racing, just ready to get out on the court on Friday.”

UMass began this season by building a great postseason résumé, blazing out to a 16-1 start, five of those wins over teams that would make the NCAA tournament: Nebraska, New Mexico, Brigham Young, Providence and Saint Joseph’s. The Minutemen climbed as high as No. 13 in the AP poll. From there, though, they struggled, going just 8-7 down the stretch, culminating with a quarterfinal exit from the Atlantic 10 tournament at the hands of George Washington.

While the Minutemen were pretty much assured a bid to the tourney, there was ample speculation that their seeding had dropped considerably, possibly to as low as a No. 9 or 10. But the selection committee clearly looked favorably at UMass’ stellar RPI (No. 20 according to ESPN). The Atlantic 10 got six NCAA tickets, its best performance ever, with UMass being joined by St. Joe’s, GW, Virginia Commonwealth, Saint Louis and Dayton.

“We had a great year,” Carter said. “We beat some big teams. We took some punches, but now we finally get a chance to show how tough we are.”

Several minutes after hearing the news, Carter still seemed awash with wonder. “I dreamed about it for so long,” he said. “It’s crazy that if we win one game we could possibly play Duke. I’m just so ready and pumped and excited.”

Kellogg was every bit as ebullient. The sixth-year head coach had experienced this lots of times before, of course. As a player at UMass, Kellogg saw the Minutemen appear on the board for the first time during his freshman season of 1991-92, the first time in 30 years the school had made it. His team made it all four years of Kellogg’s playing career, part of a seven-year run that ended in 1998. But just like that it was over for UMass, which tumbled far off the national stage. To come back for the first time as a head coach was something special.

“I feel good for our guys,” Kellogg said. “They put a lot of hard work and faith in the program. To have the opportunity to go compete in what I think is the greatest sports event on earth in your college career is important.”