UMass has found magic at MSG

"They refused to lose."

-- Drexel coach Bruiser Flint on the University of Massachusetts, after the Minutemen earned a trip to Madison Square Garden by overcoming a 17-point second-half deficit on March 20 to defeat the Dragons in Philadelphia in the NIT quarterfinals

They were words that harked back to another time, another place. They were words that spoke to the best of times -- the first sweet success -- and to the worst.

They spoke of Original Win, and Original Sin.

So perhaps it was appropriate that Derek Kellogg's UMass team was packing its fighting spirit for the NIT semifinals, where it hopes to take a bite out of the Big Apple in, of all places, the Garden.

At Madison Square Garden, the true history of UMass basketball is written. The UMass campus, of course, is located more than 150 miles away. In Amherst, you will find the lovingly quirky Curry Hicks Cage (home of UMass hoops from 1931 to 1993), and the larger, more comfortable, more sterile Mullins Center (home ever since).

Over the years, the Minutemen have played just 22 games at Madison Square Garden, the self-proclaimed "world's most famous arena." But it is here where the UMass basketball program is best defined: what it has won, what it has lost, what it has refused to lose.

And it is here where this unique UMass team of 2011-12 plays in the final four, beginning Tuesday night against Stanford. True, it's not the Final Four of the NCAA (pitting UMass expatriates John Calipari and Rick Pitino against each other), but make no mistake: Reaching the NIT semifinals is no small achievement for this team.

The trip to the Garden represents a homecoming not only for UMass' tiny power plant of a point guard, Chaz Williams, but for the program as well.

"You hear so much about the place," said Kellogg, who as a UMass point guard a generation ago played at MSG (with Calipari as his head coach and Flint as assistant). "It's incredible to actually walk through those doors and be on the floor. The lighting there almost puts you on stage. I think every kid you talk to is excited to play in New York City at Madison Square Garden. There's a great mystique."

Where history is made

UMass first played in the Garden on Feb. 1, 1962 -- 50 years ago last month. These days, the early '60s is all about "Mad Men"; back then, UMass had its own mad man in coach Matt Zunic, a fiery genius who had played for Red Auerbach in the early days of the NBA.

Zunic was a no-nonsense disciplinarian defined by the sign on his desk: "Be reasonable: do it my way." Once, when he was dissatisfied with his team's effort in a road game, he had them go right into the Curry Hicks Cage when the bus returned to campus at 2 a.m. for a practice devoted solely to diving for loose balls.

Things were not going well in that 1961-62 season when UMass took a bus down to New York for the game against St. Peter's. The Redmen, as they were known back then, were 5-7, coming off a 30-point loss to Toledo. Zunic was not a happy man.

That night, UMass routed St. Peter's in the Garden, 94-75. This bus trip back to campus was a bit more pleasant.

The game in the Garden launched a five-game winning streak and a season-closing run of 10 wins in 11 games, culminating in a 109-62 whipping of New Hampshire, after which the players carried Zunic off the floor. The Redmen had won their first Yankee Conference title, and as a result made their first appearance in the NCAA tournament.

Although UMass would not return to the Dance for 30 years (in large part because the Yankee Conference soon lost its automatic bid), Madison Square Garden would remain a transformative and defining place for UMass basketball.

The Redmen made their first trip to the Garden for postseason play in 1970. The NIT then was not considered a second-tier tournament; in fact, UMass was set to play an eighth-ranked Marquette team that had chosen the NIT over a first-round NCAA game in Fort Worth, Texas. Warriors coach Al McGuire, a native New Yorker, had almost all of the best basketball players on the court that night, led by Dean "The Dream" Meminger.

UMass had a guy named Julius Erving, who in that sophomore season (his first on varsity since freshmen were not eligible) averaged a dazzling 25.7 points and 20.9 rebounds per game.

More than 4,000 UMass fans flocked to the city. The atmosphere was raucous. The Redmen were within three points in the closing moments before falling, 62-55.

That very night, on the floor of Madison Square Garden, a starstruck 17-year-old point guard signed his letter of intent to attend UMass. His name was Rick Pitino.

The next year (with Pitino and Al Skinner playing on the freshman team), the UMass varsity roared through a 23-3 regular season. Erving sparkled. In the last home game, a victory over Syracuse, he recorded 36 points and 32 rebounds.

The reward for the season was another trip to the Garden, where the Redmen were set to take on mighty North Carolina with its young coach, Dean Smith. (The Tar Heels had won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title, but lost at the buzzer to South Carolina in the ACC tourney, and thus did not get the league's one NCAA bid.)

Hounded relentlessly by the Tar Heels, Erving picked up four fouls in the first half, then fouled out just four minutes into the second half. He finished with just 13 points and nine rebounds, the only game in his entire UMass career in which he didn't record a double-double. UMass was humbled, 90-49.

Still, coach Jack Leaman was bubbling with optimism as he headed out to the coaching confab at the NCAA Final Four in Houston. Bubbling until he got a call from assistant coach Ray Wilson. "Jack," he said, "I've got some bad news."

"What?" Leaman said with a laugh. "Is my wife leaving me?"

"Worse," Wilson said. "Julius is leaving."

It sure seems innocent enough in the modern era of one-and-done freshmen (hello, Coach Cal), but when Erving decided to leave for the ABA after his junior year, it felt like a jolt. It was, in a sense, the end of the first Golden Era of UMass basketball. And with it came a certain loss of innocence.

Revival under Cal

Sure, there were still some good days ahead for Leaman and his newly christened Minutemen -- with Madison Square Garden again providing the standard.

In 1973, Pitino helped lead UMass to its first postseason victory and first win against a nationally ranked team when the Minutemen defeated Missouri in the first round of the NIT at the Garden. The next year, the Minutemen closed out their season with an overtime loss to Jacksonville in the NIT at MSG -- Pitino ending his UMass career on the same court where it began.

From there, UMass began to tumble. Decent teams in the mid-'70s gave way to terrible ones. In one three-year stretch, UMass won only 10 games -- a period that included a singularly humiliating 29-game losing streak.

Then came Coach Cal.

The first year, 1988-89, was a disaster. The score had to be kept by flip charts during his first game when the electronic scoreboard started smoking. Two senior starters, including a captain, were arrested for burglary on the morning before a game. UMass lost by 26 to a George Washington team that dropped every other game in a 1-27 season. The 10-18 season was the 11th straight losing year under five different coaches, a stretch that the late Basketball Times editor Larry Donald would dub "an era as miserable as any school had ever endured."

The following year, Calipari added Bruiser Flint to his staff, and things began to change. The Minutemen went 17-14 and made it to the first round of the NIT, losing at Maryland.

In 1990-91, UMass was into the third round of the NIT, playing at Siena. A victory would take the Minutemen to Madison Square Garden for the first time in 14 years. Down three points with 2.3 seconds to go and inbounding at halfcourt, things looked bleak. Siena PA announcer Bob Lawson told the crowd of more than 14,000 that they could purchase bus and game tickets to MSG for the semifinals for $45. But then Tony Barbee somehow nailed a long, leaning jumper at the buzzer, and UMass prevailed in overtime, 82-80.

Jim McCoy, the all-time leading scorer in UMass history, told Jim Degnim of the Daily Hampshire Gazette immediately afterward, "Madison Square Garden. Oh, man. It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance."

As fate would have it, the Minutemen's opponent in the semifinals was Stanford (the same foe staring down Kellogg and his crew 21 years later). UMass lost a hard-fought two-point game. Afterward, Calipari, with his hair oddly mussed, ducked into a tunnel in the bowels of the Garden and called his wife, Ellen, back home in Shutesbury. He knew that he was on his way to big things.

The next season brought a scrawny, unheralded point guard to UMass. Derek Kellogg came up the road from Springfield, where the game had been invented exactly 100 years before.

Anything is possible

In Amherst, the good times never felt so good. UMass consistently played with a relentlessness and a fire that was demanded by Calipari. It was -- and is -- the man's singular gift: to get college basketball players, all of whom think they are giving their all, to give even more, and to do so in the context of team play. They would soon adopt the slogan "Refuse to Lose" -- words that would in time adorn their warmups.

UMass made it back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three decades, since the days of mad man Matt Zunic. The Minutemen pushed all the way to the Sweet 16 before falling to Pitino's Kentucky squad.

UMass returned to the Dance in 1992-93, and moved out of the Cage to the Mullins Center, routinely filling it to its capacity of 9,493.

The sense of what was possible just kept expanding. In the beginning of the 1993-94 season, Kellogg's junior year, that reached a new frontier with an absolutely landmark game on a Wednesday night in November. The venue: Madison Square Garden.

The preseason NIT (which started in 1985), like its postseason namesake, played its semifinals and finals at the Garden. UMass won its first two rounds and traveled south to take on the University of North Carolina. The Tar Heels had first met UMass back in Julius Erving's final college game, that 90-49 smackdown.

This would be the 1,000th game in the coaching career of Dean Smith, still going strong in his 33rd year, fresh off his second national championship. Four starters returned from that team, and the Tar Heels brought people like Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace off the bench. They had three 7-footers. They were the overwhelming choice as the No. 1 team in the nation.

"To walk out on the floor and see that Carolina blue was a little bit intimidating," Kellogg recalls. "And then to see the sheer size of their players was like, 'Wow!'"

Just 3:41 into the game, Carolina had an 11-0 lead, and Calipari called a timeout -- his brown eyes blazing, his neck veins bulging with rage. Into the huddle he screamed, "I'm not letting this happen!"

It didn't. Infused with Calipari's will, UMass roared back, pushed the game to overtime on a late 3 by Mike Williams and wound up prevailing, 91-86. It was the basketball program's finest hour, and the huge UMass contingent at the Garden radiated joy.

"The sheer energy in the place, the whole atmosphere, the size of the game … [it] was just kind of an amazing thing to be part of," says Kellogg, who had never before been to MSG.

That night, in the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning, the scope of the accomplishment dawned on Calipari. Unable to sleep at the Marriott Marquis, he called some friends and walked around Manhattan. Duffy Burns, an old coaching friend from 5-Star Camp days, described Calipari that night as being "as excited as I've ever seen anyone be."

Calipari later allowed that the experience was "one of the greatest nights of my life."

Right there at the world's most famous arena, UMass had defeated the defending national champs, the No. 1 team in the country. Anything seemed possible.

Again, there is hope

Calipari's last appearance at the Garden as a UMass coach came in February 1996, a regular-season 26-point wipeout of Fordham. It was not particularly memorable except for this fact: UMass took the court as the top-ranked team in America.

In fact, UMass was ranked No. 1 for most of that 1995-96 season, the most double-edged sports experience local fans have ever known. Never was there so much excitement.

The Minutemen began the year 26-0, knocking off a slew of high-profile opponents (including a season-opening jolt of then-top-ranked Kentucky). Marcus Camby was the national Player of Year. Calipari was the national Coach of the Year. UMass made it all the way to the Final Four, before Kentucky exacted its revenge. (Two nights later, the Wildcats gave Pitino his only national title.)

Afterward, there was the other side: Camby's teary confession about taking money and gifts from agents; Calipari bolting for the NBA; the treasured Final Four appearance being "vacated" by the NCAA, which demanded the trophy back; and the news that Calipari had purchased the trademark for "Refuse to Lose." The team's rallying cry had become a commodity.

The 15 seasons that have come and gone since have been mostly forgettable ones at the University of Massachusetts. There were only six winning records. Only twice -- the first two years after Calipari left -- did UMass make it to the NCAA tournament, both first-round losses under Flint. Crowds began to dwindle. The Mullins Center rarely filled to even half of its capacity.

In 2007-08 under Travis Ford, UMass again found itself at Madison Square Garden at season's end, losing to Ohio State in the NIT title game. It was a good show, but it had no staying power. That was a team, not a program. It was built for the short term: three of the senior starters were transfers. Ford had not recruited well beneath them. His clumsy exit to Oklahoma State left UMass with a pleasing blip on the radar and a cupboard that was bare.

Then Derek Kellogg came home amid much fanfare. He had spent the previous eight years in Memphis as an assistant to Calipari. A couple of weeks removed from a galling loss to Kansas in overtime in the national championship game, Kellogg took the microphone at the Curry Hicks Cage and described the UMass position as his "dream job." In one breath, he said he couldn't make any promises. In another, he said, "We're going to be the hardest-working, most fun, most passionate, most energetic team in the country.

"We're going to win. We're going to win."

They didn't win. His first team went 12-18, his second 12-20 -- the first 20-loss season at the school in 26 years. Last season started well, a rousing 7-0 bolt from the gate, but the Minutemen crashed at the finish. In the last regular-season game, UMass lost to Fordham, a team that had lost 41 straight A-10 games. Then UMass hosted an opening-round A-10 game against Dayton. Many in the skeletal crowd of 2,264 were long gone before the final buzzer of the 78-50 loss, ending UMass' season at 15-15.

There were all kinds of problems. The vaunted dribble-drive-motion offense was a disaster, with UMass looking disjointed on multiple possessions almost every game. Heralded point guard recruits Doug Wiggins and Daryl Traynham flamed out immediately with disciplinary issues. UMass rarely won on the road, rarely showed the ability to come back from deficits, and looked spent come March.

One thing you never heard anymore was "refuse to lose." In part, it was a cliché that had lost its power to evoke. In part it was tainted. But mostly you didn't hear it because it just wasn't true.

"We were all disappointed with ourselves [at the end of last year], for not really giving up but for not giving our all," said Sean Carter, the only starting senior on this year's team.

Though a constitutional optimist, Kellogg admits it was time for "a lot of self-reflection."

Was he, in Calipari's old words from the North Carolina game at Madison Square Garden, "letting this happen"?

Kellogg knew Year 4 was make or break, and he took every possible step to push for the former. He brought in sports psychologist Joe Carr for a three-day workshop with the entire team. He convinced the athletic department to hire a strength and conditioning coach who would work exclusively with the basketball team. He walked the UMass campus one day with a visiting John Calipari, coming off his second year at Kentucky, his third Final Four appearance, still in search of his biggest goal.

Now on the other side of 50 and with a hip replacement, Calipari took in the old stomping grounds with his former point guard and protégé, now 38.

"We talked about a lot of different things," Kellogg said. "We talked about my team and where I thought we were. … It was a big talk for me."

It became clear to Kellogg that he needed to be comfortable with his own authority. "A lot of it is I just needed to impose my will on this program and team," he said.

He decided to abandon the dribble-drive-motion in favor of a more conventional fast-breaking offense, and he decided to give the car keys to Chaz Williams.

A redshirt sophomore transfer from Hofstra listed generously at 5-foot-9, Williams had spent the 2010-11 season in street clothes watching the team.

"I just saw guys that needed some leadership, someone who was going to be there for them no matter what," said Williams, a native of Brooklyn. "I got to know the personalities. I got to know how they like the basketball, where they like it, their sweet spots."

What has ensued has been a revelation. Williams has played the game with a raging but controlled fire that has ignited UMass to a breakout season. One of only three players in the country to average more than 16 points (16.9), six assists (6.3) and four rebounds (4.4), Williams was named to the All-Atlantic 10 first team. He became the first first-year Minuteman ever to be so honored, and only the fifth sophomore (joining McCoy, Lou Roe, Camby and Rashaun Freeman).

"He definitely elevated this team to a whole other level with how competitive he is at everything," Carter said. "He brings it every time he comes out."

His charisma has been undeniable. "There's more people around here who love Chaz Williams," Kellogg said, "from 80-year-olds to college students to kids in elementary schools."

UMass has seen major development from lots of young players, including sophomores Raphiael Putney (10.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Jesse Morgan (10.1 ppg), and long, lean freshman Maxie Esho (5.1 ppg).

Junior Terrell Vinson (10.0 ppg , 5.0 rpg) has been revitalized after a disappointing sophomore year and has emerged as a big-time clutch player. Carter (8.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg) is playing the best ball of his career. And erstwhile starting juniors Javorn Farrell (6.3 ppg) and Freddie Riley (6.4) have come off the bench with big contributions.

So even with early injuries that ended the seasons of two important players, Sampson Carter and Cady Lalanne, UMass finished the regular season with a 20-10 record. Big crowds returned to the Mullins Center.

It had been a long time since the month of March also functioned as a verb for UMass. But this year, the Minutemen won two games in the A-10 tourney, including an upset of No. 1 seed Temple. In the semifinals, down 16 in the second half to eventual champion St. Bonaventure, UMass roared back to within two in the closing seconds. A potential game-winning 3-point bid by Putney just missed, and UMass fell, 84-80.

They had a hard road as a 5-seed in one of four eight-team NIT regionals. They first had to get through two excellent teams from power conferences on the road. They fought through a double-overtime game to beat Mississippi State, then ousted Seton Hall, 77-67.

That set up last Tuesday night's game at Drexel. The Dragons had won 29 games this season. They had won 18 in a row at home. They were up by 17 in the second half and their fans could taste Madison Square Garden.

In a huddle during a timeout, Vinson turned to Williams and said, "This is the kind of game I love."

"You ain't lying about that," Williams said.

And then there was an avalanche of toughness: fighting for rebounds, diving for loose balls, pushing and pushing just a little bit more. When it was over, UMass had refused to go down.

Who knows if the success of this 25-11 team will carry over beyond this season? It sure feels different than the team that made it to New York four years ago, however.

"It was a good season that turned into a very good to great season," Kellogg said. "It's not guaranteed that we're going to do anything, but at the same time there is hope. As a fan, as a player, as a coach, you want hope. You want a chance."

And now they head back to Madison Square Garden.

"As a head coach, this will be my first time pacing those sidelines," Kellogg said. "I think it's going to be a pretty cool thing."

Marty Dobrow is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. A professor of communications at Springfield College, he is the author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream" (2010, University of Massachusetts Press).