Five months of college basketball have come and gone and only one of the 21 college basketball teams that call New England home still has life. While UConn drew all the headlines, Harvard made history, Vermont went dancing and Boston College started the rebuilding process, UMass has quietly put together their best season in the Derek Kellogg era.
Tuesday the Minutemen will take the floor at Madison Square Garden against Stanford trying to move one step closer to achieving a program first: winning a championship. It might only be a National Invitation Tournament Championship, but it would be just the beginning of what this roster could achieve.
The Minutemen are led by a pair of sophomores (Chaz Williams and Raphiael Putney) who have not only been the team's best players but also were some of the key factors in sparking Kellogg to completely change the team's style this offseason.
After being known for their dribble-drive attack during Kellogg's first three years and only achieving limited success, UMass has become one of the top scoring teams in the nation behind its new up-tempo style offense. UMass has used their 40-minute full-court pressure defense to create frequent easy scoring opportunities and seen an 11-point increase per game on the scoreboard from a year ago (66.3 to 77.3), even after losing their leading scorer to graduation. All season long the Minutemen have entertained the home fans in Amherst and impressed opposing coaches with their high-flying offense and pressure defense that has UMass in 16th in the nation in scoring offense.
But what has made the new system more than just fun to watch, but extremely effective? Speed and a roster full of unbelievable athletes, and no one embodies that more than Williams, a Hofstra transfer and the team's point guard.
Williams is the leader of the bunch, the heart and soul of the team and the star of the high-flying Minutemen. While he might not look like much at first glance, he's listed at 5'9" 175 and that's extremely generous, the Hofstra transfer is easily one of the fastest players in America and has a drive and game that's almost impossible to match.
Instead of trying to back opponents down, Williams either blows by them or wears them down over the course of a grueling 40 minutes. He not only leads the team in scoring (16.9ppg), assists (6.3apg), 3-pt field goal percentage (.425) and free throw percentage (.787), but also averages a team-high 2.3 steals per game because of his quickness.
But although he sets the tone, he can't do it all alone and that's where Putney and the rest of the UMass roster come into play. On a nightly basis, UMass poses opponents matchup problems because of the roster's rare combination of length, athleticism and Putney is the epitome of that dynamic. The 6'9" beanpole has the height to play against any power forward in the nation, but his ability to run the floor, knock down 3-pointers and throw down monster dunks, makes him a nightmare for anyone but maybe Anthony Davis to guard.
And while Williams and Putney tend to be the biggest thorns in opponent's sides, the rest of the roster is full of players who can cause havoc and more importantly fill a specific role. Senior center Sean Carter and junior forwards Terrell Vinson and Javorn Farrell provide a ton of toughness and grit inside, Maxie Esho is a younger version of Putney with less range and guards Jesse Morgan and Freddie Riley provide a ton of energy and sharpshooting, while helping to lead the team's press.
Already the Minutemen are tied for fifth in program history with 25 wins, and nine of the team's 10 regular rotation players will be back next year. Add in another year working together and the fact that UMass will get freshmen Cady LaLanne, a preseason Atlantic 10 All Rookie selection, and junior Sampson Carter back from injury and UMass shouldn't miss a beat next year.
Kellogg's not content to sit by either, he's bringing in a strong freshmen class to replace Carter. Florida big man Tyler Bergantino is a 6-9 forward who can run the floor and was a double-double machine at Nature Coast High School and Laguerre is a 6'2" guard who has practiced with UMass all year long and could've been a contributor this year according to Kellogg.
And with scholarships available for next year, UConn junior forward Alex Oriakhi could be an option to help the Minutemen get over the top. It might be a long shot but because of his senior status and the Huskies postseason ban, Oriakhi is planning to transfer for and will look for an immediate one year fix where he can come in and have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament according to an ESPN report.
Oriakhi is from Lowell and would have the chance to come in and would have a chance to redeem himself after a poor junior season. While Oriakhi's not used to running for forty minutes, he showed enough power and strength in his first two seasons to merit the Minutemen's attention and instantly become one of the best big men in the Atlantic 10. His size and experience would not only help combat the hole that Carter will leave, but he also could be a positive force in molding the team's core of young big men.
With or without Oriakhi, Williams and UMass will likely be playing on the national stage in front of big audiences more and more over the next few seasons, as the Minutemen look to reclaim their former glory.