Meet your basketball mistress: UMass Minutemen

Meet your basketball mistress: UMass Minutemen
January 8, 2014, 3:30 pm

The Celtics lost again last night. It was their fifth in a row, their eighth in the last nine games, and unfortunately, the road only gets rougher from here.
 
Here's their upcoming schedule: Tonight in LA against Doc Rivers and the Clippers. Friday night at Golden State, Saturday night in Portland. Back home on Monday against the Rockets. Even next Wednesday’s visit from the new and improved, Rudy Gay-less Raptors looks ominous. By this time next week, the Celtics could conceivably have the second-worst record in the NBA.
 
Is this real life?! Yes it is. And at this point, the reality of this season has officially set in. Basically, that it’s really not about this season. That for now, on a night-to-night basis, there’s no urgency. It’s all big picture. And while that’s not a reason to stop watching and following and/or caring about a team, it does leave a void. For the next year or so, Boston’s marriage with the Celtics might be missing a certain naughty little spark.
 
On that note, it’s time to put on my Little Finger mask and introduce you to your new mistress. Who also happens to be a former mistress.
 
The UMass men’s basketball team.
 
In case you haven’t been following, UMass is having itself a borderline historic season over in Amherst. Through 14 games, the Minutemen are 13-1. That’s their best start since Camby and Calipari opened 26-0 in 1995-96.
 
UMass has also spent the last six weeks ranked in the AP Top 25, and this past week cracked the Top 20 for the first time since February of 1998.
 
With the way that some coaches like to pad their pre-conference schedule, you might wonder about the legitimacy of UMass’ record. You know, maybe they spent the first semester beating up on Bryant and Worcester Poly Tech.
 
Nope. In fact, UMass played the hardest pre-conference schedule in the country. Literally. Heading into their 66-62 victory Tuesday night over St. Joseph in their Atlantic 10 opener, the Minutemen rank first overall in strength of schedule. They’re fifth in the RPI. Their 13-1 record is about as real as it gets.
 
So is that elusive dream of getting back to the NCAA tournament.
 
It’s been 15 years since UMass last advanced to the dance. Their last tournament game was a first-round loss in 1998 to freshman sensation Larry Hughes and the St. Louis Billikens.
 
Back then, coach Derek Kellogg was three years removed from his own UMass playing career, and working as an assistant coach for George Mason. It wasn’t long before he reconnected with John Calipari and spent eight years as an assistant on the Memphis bench. You can only imagine how much time Kellogg spent studying and learning from Calipari (although hopefully not everything), then in 2008, Kellogg left Memphis to accept the same challenge that Calipari had 20 years earlier: Save UMass basketball.
 
Six years later, and Kellogg’s getting closer. It really looks like this will be the season that the Minutemen finally burst through the bubble. The Atlantic 10 received five bids to last year’s tournament; they get plenty of respect. So UMass doesn’t have to pin their hopes on a conference tournament miracle. Kellogg took a big chance with their early schedule, but his team answered the call. Now, if they take care of business in the conference, they’ll finally get that big call.
 
It helps having Chaz Williams. If you’ve never seen him play, that’s reason alone to check out tonight’s game (7 pm on CSN).
 
(Note: I started writing this before I even realized tonight’s game was on Comcast. I promise I wouldn’t pull something like that.)
 
Anyway, as long as Rajon Rondo is injured, Williams is the most entertaining basketball player in New England. And it’s not even close. The 5-foot-9 senior point guard plays with Nate Robinson’s energy, but unlike Robinson, his switch is always on. He attacks the hoop like Stephon Marbury in his prime. And he’s just as adept at dishing it in traffic. Williams ranks second in the country with 7.5 assists a game. (By the way, I’m obviously not saying that Chaz is as good as Marbury . . . I’m saying that he’s better. No, not really.)
 
Williams is also UMass’ leading scorer with 15.5 points a game. He’s also a great defender. There might not be a player in the Top 25 who’s more essential to his team’s success. This guy has the entire program on his back and the best part is that he loves it. He thrives on it. You watch Chaz Williams and you know you’re watching a guy who’s meant to do big things on a bigger stage. On the March Madness stage. Now he just has to get there.
 
Junior Cady Lalanne will help. The 6-10 center averages 13.2 point, 9.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks a game. Seniors Sampson Carter and Raphael Putney both score in double figures. Junior big man Maxie Esho plays huge minutes off the bench and under the boards.
 
These names might not mean much to you right now, but they’ve already taken over Amherst. UMass’ last home game (an overtime win over Providence) was the first sellout at the Mullins Center since 2006. And school wasn’t even in session. All the students were home for Christmas.
 
But everyone will be back tonight. The first game of the Atlantic 10 schedule. The next step in UMass’ long climb back towards the NCAA tournament. It will be wild. It will be a lot of fun. And it doesn’t even interfere with the Celtics game! This is the perfect opportunity to get a taste of that excitement and urgency that once ran through the Garden every time Boston took the floor.
 
It’s a game that’s worth watching. If you’re a basketball fan, this is a team that’s worth watching.
 
Just think of a good lie in case the Celtics call and ask what you’re doing.
 
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine