UMass hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1998, but the Minutemen are showing signs of emerging from the depths as they get set to face Stanford in the NIT semifinals on Tuesday night.
The Minutemen weren't even supposed to get this far this season. The No. 5 seed in Region 3, they had regular-season losses to such teams as Charleston, La Salle, Duquesne, Rhode Island and Saint Joseph.
But wins against Mississippi State, Seton Hall and Drexel have changed that tune. Led by a 5'9" point guard in Chaz Williams whom big schools said was too small to play in the ACC, the Minutemen have the look of a team gaining experience for a run at the NCAA tournament in 2013.
Williams, a sophomore, is averaging 16.4 points, 6.4 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 steals while shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc. UMass' second-leading scorer, Raphiael Putney, is shooting 48 percent for the season and protecting the rim with 1.4 blocks per game. That's not to mention Terrell Vinson, Jesse Morgan and Sean Carter, all of whom have all stepped up big for the Minutemen in the NIT.
UMass has also gotten big contributions from bench players Maxie Esho, Javorn Farrell and Freddie Riley.
Beyond talent, this team has heart. The Minutemen wouldn't have even made it to the semifinals if they hadn't overcome a 17-point second-half deficit on March 20 to defeat Drexel.
Drexel coach Bruiser Flint simply said after the game, via ESPN, "They refused to lose."
But the head coach may be just as responsible for the program's rise.
Derek Kellogg, a former assistant to John Calipari at Memphis, reportedly talked to Calipari before this season and actually brought in sports psychologist Joe Carr for three days.
That's when Kellogg decided to hand the reins to Williams and see what he could do.
It turned out to be the right move, as Williams has played with a fire all season long that has led the Minutemen further than they could have dreamed. The Brooklyn native now gets to play in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night against Stanford, and you can bet he'll bring his A-game.
After years of mediocrity, UMass finally appears to be turning the corner.
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