Throughout the 1990s, the University of Massachusetts was a powerhouse in college basketball.
John Calipari took over as head coach in 1988 and led the Minutemen from obscurity to an Elite Eight appearance in 1995 and a Final Four in 1996 before bolting for the NBA. UMass was routinely a Top 25 team in the 90s, making the NCAA tournament seven times, with their last appearance coming in 1998.
The Minutemen have tasted little success since their last tourney appearance, however, struggling through mediocre seasons and several head coaches before appointing alum Derek Kellogg to the position in 2008.
Kellogg, the point guard for the ’95 UMass Elite Eight squad, led the team to a disappointing 39-53 mark in his first three seasons as head coach before scrapping his dribble-drive offense for the fast-paced, up-tempo offense UMass now employs. Since the switch, the Minutemen have improved drastically, making consecutive NIT trips, including a run to the NIT Final Four in 2011-12.
After a 15-year drought, here are five reasons why UMass is poised to return to the Big Dance in the 2013-14 season.
1. The Emergence of Cady Lalanne
Cady Lalanne, a 6’10", 250-pound center from Orlando, Fla., has had to fight off nagging injuries during his first two years in Amherst.
The big man was only on the court for 22 minutes a game last season, yet he still managed to average over eight points and seven rebounds while making 72 percent of his free throws.
With a full, injury-free summer of conditioning under his belt, expect to see a bigger, stronger Lalanne on the court for about 30 minutes a game this season. With this increase in playing time, Lalanne should see his production increase considerably while also stabilizing the UMass offense and providing defense under the basket.
UMass fans are fully aware of the impact Lalanne can have, after witnessing his 22-point, 14-rebound performance in a victory over Dayton in February. If Lalanne can come close to replicating those numbers on a consistent basis, UMass will almost certainly be dancing come March.
2. The Addition of Derrick Gordon
Derrick Gordon, a 6’3" guard who played high school basketball at St. Patrick’s (N.J.) with current Charlotte Bobcat Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, should slide right into the UMass starting lineup and make an immediate impact.
Although he could certainly improve his outside shooting, Gordon’s slashing abilities should help him get to the free-throw line frequently while also taking some of the pressure off Chaz Williams. Gordon, who transferred from Western Kentucky, guided the Hilltoppers to the 2012 NCAA tournament while leading his team in both scoring (11.8) and rebounding (6.7) average.
3. Favorable Atlantic-10 Schedule
The 2012-13 Minutemen missed out on the NCAA tournament largely because of their tendency to not show up in big games.
Fortunately for the 2013-2014 Minutemen, most of those big games will be held at the Mullins Center in Amherst, where UMass has gone 24-5 over the past two seasons.
UMass will host both VCU and St. Louis, which played in the A-10 championship game last year, as well as La Salle, which made a surprise run to the Sweet 16. Winning two of those three games will go a long way towards impressing the NCAA committee on Selection Sunday.
4. Raphiael Putney Finally Realizes Potential
Affectionately known around the UMass campus as ‘Skinny’, Raphiael Putney, a 6’9" forward from Woodbridge, Va., has teased fans with his potential for three years now.
As a sophomore in 2011-12, Putney averaged 10 points and six boards a game and seemed to be headed towards a great career at UMass. Last year, however, Putney regressed (7.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG) and seemed to lose a lot of the confidence he had gained the year before. If he can regain his 2011-12 form, the Minutemen will have yet another offensive weapon at their disposal.
5. Chaz Williams
Last, but certainly not least, is UMass' miniature point guard Chaz Williams.
Williams, who transferred from Hofstra after his freshman season, is undoubtedly one of the most exciting players in college basketball today. Since arriving in Amherst, he has averaged 16 points and 6.8 assists while dazzling fans with his court vision and knack for big plays.
Williams flirted with the idea of entering the NBA draft after last season, but decided to return to school. That decision will be the main reason why the Minutemen end their 15-year drought and return to the NCAA tournament in 2013-14.