Die Another Day(ton)

The UMass men’s baskettaball season has finally, graciously, come to an abrupt end. And not a moment too soon.

Oh, sure, the CBI and CIT will come a-calling for up-and-coming mid-majors who want to pay the $35G entry fee to play in a meaningless post-season tournament. But newsflash: this is not an up-and-coming mid-major. The Atlantic 10 is not a mid-major. It’s a major, albeit not one of the “power six,” but not a joke of a conference where the Arkansas-Little Rocks of the world can line up to be 15 and 16 seeds year after year. This is what pisses me off the most about the “look how many teams have made the NCAA tournament since UMass last did it!” Yeah. Look how many teams play in bullshit conferences. UMass plays in the Atlantic 10. It ain’t spectacular, but it’s prestigious enough that you need to actually be good to win the conference. That’s why Xavier and Temple win it year after year. That’s why Dayton, certainly a proud enough program, is a yearly contender. With great power comes great responsibility, of course. UMass could drop down to one of the aforementioned bullshit conferences, and be a perennial power in, say, the Northeast Conference. (Actually, based on their performance against Central Connecticut…you know, let’s not go there right now.) But they don’t. They play in the Atlantic 10. And so we will continue to suffer as fans, missing the tournament year after year, until they build a team capable of competing at this level.

This was not such a team this year.

That 7-0 start (no, seriously! They started 7-0!) was a facade, and we all knew it. Rallying against a Rider team that fell asleep at the wheel, and only after Gurley and Riley caught absolute fire behind the arc. Barely squeezing by teams like Sacred Heart and Holy Cross. (Unless it’s Notre Dame, you generally want to blow out schools with adjective-noun religious names.) Those blowout wins against not-so-great TCU and New Mexico State looked nice until you factor in their hellish travel schedules. The real warning sign should have been AIC hanging around in the first half. AIC! Basically a community college! I mean, for chrissakes, even Travis Ford’s tournament-missing teams were able to blow out middling A-10 squads at home. No matter who UMass played, a 20-point win just seemed to be too much to ask for. And yeah, margin of victory shouldn’t matter if you’re winning, but face it – it does matter. If you’re not significantly better than shitty competition, then something is severely wrong with either your focus, your style of play, your talent, your coaching…something. And in some combination, all of these factors undermined the Minutemen’s season, until their most embarrassing two-game span in recent memory: snapping Fordham’s 41-game conference losing streak, and then a “nationally”-televised (which is to say, even less-“nationally” than Versus’s “nationally”-televised NHL games) playoff game against a middling Dayton team which saw the second-worst loss in Mullins history. Moreover, the student endzone was actually full for the first time since, ohh, I dunno, probably the last time BC was in town (my 21st birthday, incidentally), and once again, a poorly-timed stinkbomb of a performance likely made the marketing department’s job that much harder for next year.

So where do we go from here? Turn all the lights down now. I’m NOT feeling this. (With apologies to blink-182.)

Seriously. There is nothing to be gained from spending thousands of dollars to play in a mediocre tournament. This team has regressed drastically as the season has gone on. And yeah, part of it was that the Minutemen started playing against teams who didn’t have to travel thousands of miles and/or the third day in a row. The fact of the matter is, the offense made nil progress as the year went on, while Anthony Gurley (who pretty much was the offense at the start of the year) started getting contained and shut down. There was no plan B. This team had one way of winning: grind the game down, hang around and make the other team play “baskettaball,” and hope that the opponent goes just as cold from the field. In a few games – the first game against Dayton, both games against Rhody, and almost that Temple game – it worked. More often than not? The offense sputtered hilariously.

Enough is enough with this “dribble drive” crap. The halfcourt offense had almost no chance of scoring unless Freddie/Gurley/Morgan happened to hit a jacked-up 3. Gurley had a streaky year, true, but I’d take “streaky” over the shitshow of outside shooting from the rest of the team. Riley’s shot selection was atrocious. Morgan still looks like he’s figuring out the rhythm of D1 hoops and it’s hard to get a grasp on whether he can be the dominant scorer he’s shown flashes of. But look at the rest of the squad – Correia’s not really an outside shooter, Putney’s outside shooting was awful, and even Sampson and Vinson(!) jacked up the trey from time to time. Has anyone ever heard of midrange shooting? It felt like watching the Jim O’Brien Celtics from time to time, with Gurley as Pierce, only not nearly as good. Worse still, when the team actually DID drive to the hoop, nobody seemed capable of finishing. I mean nobody. Sean Carter was lobbed awful alley-oop passes all season long (most of the time not his fault), Farrell and Gurley occasionally slashed to the hoop with mixed results, and Bailey managed to become an alright defender and rebounder with absolutely no inside scoring game whatsoever, sort of a homeless man’s Kendrick Perkins. It looks a million times worse after years of watching Travis Ford’s teams run up and down the court, scoring seemingly at will at times, defense-optional. I appreciate that these guys recognize the importance of defense, but you can’t win basketball games without a consistent offense. You just can’t.

To his credit, Kellogg seems to recognize this. In the postgame interviews after the Dayton game, he dismissed the idea of competing in a low-level tournament and stressed that it would be much more productive for the team to get into the gym, and prepare for next year by being bigger and stronger. He said he wants to run more, saying the team “did what they could with what they had” this year. So he knew all along that the team didn’t have it, but didn’t want to mention any of this until after the season. Okay, so that kind of sucks with regards to this year, but I’d be rather concerned, frankly, if he came out and said something like “well, that’s too bad, but the more we run this offense, the better it will be.” He hinted that the team wants to run more. It all sounds pretty apologetic, but how much of it is posturing? Whatever. It’s a step in the right direction for now, and that’s all we can hope for. What it actually means for this program is another monster entirely.

Now, Kellogg himself ain’t goin’ nowhere, for anyone who hasn’t yet grasped that UMass cannot afford to buy him out right now. He’s here for two (or three, depending who you ask) more years, because that’s what he’s signed for. That’s absolutely fine with me for a few reasons; first of all, a surefire, instant upgrade does not seem readily available, nor does one seem interested. Al Skinner’s still out there, but eh, I’ve never been horribly impressed with what he’s done with considerably more resources at BC. Outside of that, the powers-that-be seem to be, at least publicly, dead-set on keeping a coach here long-term, a la Majerus at Saint Louis or Baron at Rhody. Never you mind that neither coach has been horribly successful of late. We want no part of being a stepping stone for anyone. There’s no denying that DK being successful would be a godsend, a feel-good story, and most importantly, a way for this team to keep it rolling because of his undying loyalty to his alma mater. So he’s here, for better or for worse, and instead of debating whether he should stay or not NOW, the debate for us now becomes whether he can figure it out by the end of his contract.

So how can he do this? Well, call me crazy, but I’m optimistic that next year CAN be a huge improvement. Yeah, I’m the same guy who just spent 1300 words telling you what went wrong this year. But what makes me optimistic is that a) the turnover in players is going to make it easy to rectify all the failure, and b) the coach has indicated that he sees what went wrong and is, for the first time in his tenure as head coach, openly discussing an overhaul of the way this team plays. Let’s take a look.

Next year, the roster loses Gurley, Correia, and CDP (and maybe Hill, but – with all due respect to the new father – whatevs). One of the biggest problems with Kellogg’s tenure has been his inability to get HIS point guard. Chris Lowe was a fantastic talent, but his talents in the uptempo game were wasted between DK’s first-year adjustments and the fledgling offense. Wiggins, Traynham…different guys, different stories, same fates. Gibbs? Might have been better in Ford’s system but more likely just one of those guys who, for whatever reason, can’t put it together at this level. (Good as Ford’s offensive system was…Gibbs was the best recruit he could land? Really?) And Correia, the guy whose entrance made us cringe even in Chris Lowe’s worst games of his senior year, who was only our point guard this year because of what happened with the previous three guys I mentioned. That’s something people are so quick to forget with regards to this team. Look, I don’t want to pile on GC, but it was clear from his freshman year that this guy was a backup point guard at this level, and instead we were left with him, having no legitimate PG backup, running a convoluted offense all year long. The point guard is the quarterback of your team, and UMass’s was a backup, plain and simple.

As Gurley went through the year, putting up big numbers for a team on which he emerged as basically the only scoring option on many nights, the question arose from UMass nation: “Who’s gonna replace this guy next year? Where will we get his scoring from?” That’s fan-ese for “I don’t understand how stats work in basketball.” That’s like the people who think that wins and losses are meaningful statistics in baseball. Here’s the answer: “Well, other people are going to shoot more, in a system that will be designed so that they get scoring opportunities rather than Gurley, and – voila! – points may or may not result.” And honestly, Gurley’s season wasn’t that impressive. He’s not Jimmer Fredette. He’s not even freaking Gary Forbes. He really wasn’t that much better than he was back when Ricky and Gaffney et al were on the team, and he was not exempt from criticism then. On a team that struggled this much offensively, that shot in the bottom 1/7th of the nation from the field, it’s not “how do we replace this guy’s scoring.” It’s “how can we overhaul the offense so that the other guys actually take quality shots?”

Back in the – ahem – “glory days” for UMass, sure, we had outside shooters. Yeah, there was Forbes slashing to the hoop, and Ricky to an extent in his absence. But you also had guys like Freeman and Gaffney and Milligan who could occasionally do things down in the post, offensive rebound, etc. CDP is gone, so his offensive woes are irrelevant. But Vinson and Sampson and Sean have, thus far, underwhelmed with their offensive games. Of that triumvirate, Sean had a pretty good season, but he could stand to attack the basket even more. Maybe it’s the number, but I keep thinking of Etienne Brower when I see Sampson out there, only with a better inside game and without as much shooting prowess. And Vinson…boy, what a mystery he’s been. There was just so much potential for him that first year, but his offense out of the halfcourt is virtually nonexistent. He might just be better suited as a finisher in a run-and-gun type of offense. I don’t know, maybe not. But something has to change for him, because it just feels like such a waste of talent.

There were a few bright spots this year. Much has been made of the emergence of Putney and Morgan. Putney, in particular, has been very exciting to watch, with his phenomenal reach, aggressiveness, and, well, he’s just so goofy-looking! Seriously, though, if he continues to eat more sammiches this off-season (someone hook this guy up with some extreme mass-building supplements, f’real now) and gets even stronger, he could be an inside-outside threat as his basketball smarts continue to progress. He’s gotta shoot better than 20% from 3, though, or maybe just not shoot them at all. I personally think he might be better-suited shooting those KG-esque midrange jumpers; if only such shots weren’t discouraged by the coaching staff. The guy I do want shooting more 3’s is Jesse Morgan. He was streaky as hell down the stretch, but I like his quickness and aggressiveness, and I think he did a damn good job for someone with so little experience and time to adjust to the system. He’s a curious case, for sure, but one to keep an eye on next year. I’d like to see him do more than just shoot from the outside, but I think he could certainly have a Ricky-before-his-senior-year type role for a team that needs all the shooting help they can get.

Speaking of curious cases…I don’t know how this whole Riley stuff is going to play out. There’s plenty of speculation and rumors that he’s any combination of a headcase, unhappy here, and/or starving for the opportunity to prove himself. Thus, I see this as a turning point for Freddie – either he packs up and leaves, or he gets his head on straight and comes out next year with the same level of determination that we saw in the waning minutes of the Dayton disaster. Both outcomes would be more constructive than the season he had this year, in which he was undoubtedly the team’s most controversial Tweeter, openly criticizing the fans (and even responding to our own Matt at one point, which I’m pretty sure is why head coaches despise Twitter), opining about not getting to play, etc. No player on this team was more divisive for fans. But when you have a guy with the potential to be a prolific scorer and shooter (provided his shot selection and/or the offensive system improves), maybe you have to give him a chance, and ignore the baggage – or, even better, hope he’s able to overcome it.

Next year, the team will welcome the biggest name Kellogg has recruited in his time with the program. Jordan Laguerre projects as a dynamic scorer, an immediate impact-guy, someone who can score off the dribble (lol wut?), hit the outside shot, dunk the ball, cure cancer, and slot right in on the top line next year alongside Hobbs and Syner. Nah, but seriously, we’ve heard this shit before – Gibbs was supposed to be a combo guard who would score seemingly at will, and that’s not even close to what we ended up seeing. Still, he’s the most exciting prospect ON PAPER that this team has brought in since Gibbs, and since he’s a DK guy and not a Ford guy, you have to be at least somewhat thrilled for his arrival. The good news is that he plays a position that we have a few existing guys at – the aforementioned Morgan, Riley (unless he leaves), and even Farrell if needed (although I think JYD’s second half struggles this year had a lot to do with him playing too much 1/2 and not enough 3, for which he seems better suited). The bad news is that the pickings are considerably slimmer at positions where we most need improvement.

Okay, that’s being awfully harsh to Chaz Williams. But really, the last few transfers we’ve had have struggled in their first years with the team. Brower, Gaffney and Gurley took until their senior years to truly make an impact. Bailey and Bonner were busts. Sean Carter’s first year here wasn’t so hot. But I suppose we have no choice. In Williams we trust. The good news is that this guy seems to have his head on straight, relative to our last few point guard projects (Wiggins/Traynham). Still, point guard is one place you never want to have question marks – we just saw that for three straight years. Here’s hoping Chaz is the real deal.

Also of note are redshirt Maxie Esho and Cady Lalanne, who sat out the year becoming academically eligible. Both are big forwards (6’8″ and 6’9″ respectively). Both are highly-touted prospects (sound familiar?) who could step in and succeed where Bailey failed and Vinson has yet to succeed. These guys have flown under the radar, but both have scouting reports rife with words like “athletic” and “good scoring touch” that, while perhaps indicative of hyperbolic scouting report lingo, could just as easily indicate that the answer to what ails this program might already lie within. We shall see. I’m looking forward to learning more about these guys’ role as the offseason moves on and Kellogg figures out what this team will look like next year.

And how will that team play? Ultimately, it comes back to the dribble-drive. Is it time to get Walberg out of town? Honestly, I haven’t been following the DK-Walberg rumors as closely as some have, particularly this year (where I was present for a grand total of one game in person). Some fans insinuate on the forums that Walberg is running the show. If that’s the case…it’s time for him to not run the show anymore. This will be year four for Kellogg. For three years, the so-called architect of the DDM hasn’t been able to get it to work effectively. It’s time for DK to figure out what he’s got and build a system that will make it work. This isn’t Memphis; Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans aren’t walking through that door. (And why would they, we don’t have a coach to pay them off, HEY-O!!! Kidding, of course.) If that means wrestling control of the team away from his assistant coach, then so be it. If it turns out that it’s nothing but idle fan speculation, well, cool, whatever. I just can’t believe that a program at this level could run the same failed offense over and over again.

This program can succeed at the A-10 level. The students – and now, I suspect, many of the local fans – are done with the honeymoon phase, and they ain’t coming back until DK starts putting out a winning product. Now it’s up to him to salvage his own legacy and the respect of the fanbase that once made the Bill one of college basketball’s finest venues. For the fans who have been calling for his head, listen to his words. He knows this season was unacceptable, but I think that maybe – just maybe – he gets what needs to be done, and next year he’ll have the pieces to do it.

This team got what it needed – a year that was spiraling out of control has ended. Josh Maurer’s pronunciation will likely be the same next year, but the era of “baskettaball” has come to an end.

Or at least, for this program’s – and my sanity’s – sake, it better have.

-Max

P.S. Oh, and thank you to the graduating class of 2011. Anthony Gurley, Hashim Bailey, Gary Correia, and possibly Matt Hill. My uneducated criticisms and those of all the other fans do not change the fact that these players put their hearts and souls into the training and practice and sacrifice that goes into playing collegiate sports at the highest level.

P.P.S. Thanks for calling me out, Matt, but I’ve decided that my long-promised “state of the students” article will be coming after the hockey season is over. Whenever that may be, hopelessly optimistic exclamation point!

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