It’s almost here, boys and girls. The most anticipated season of UMass men’s basketball most of us can ever remember, the Season of Great Expectations (TM), will tip off bright and early Tuesday morning against some wicked smahhhht kehhds. We love hockey, we live on hockey, and the upgrade of football to the big show is exciting and all, but this is the school’s flagship program, and the banners hanging in the Mullins rafters bear that out. And while we feel strongly that hockey looks poised for its best season since Jon Quick was between the pipes, this was one offseason where the question of “is it October yet?” was bested by only one other question: “is it November yet?”
Let’s set the stage. Last year, the expectations for this program were subdued at best. We, ever the optimists, saw it possible that the maturing upperclassmen would meld with the intriguing diminutive transfer, some kid named Chaz Williams from Hofstra, and make the most of a cupcake schedule to turn things around. Mind you, we were about a half-year removed from getting trounced at home in the A-10 tourney against Dayton in a loss so humiliating that the team declined invites to lower-tier postseason tourneys, so I took the ribbing from the skeptical hockey fans at the Bill and online, who saw no reason to believe things would be any better for Coach Kellogg than in his first few seasons.
And oh, how satisfying it is to finally be right about something! (It’s surprisingly rare for me.) UMass breezed, for the most part, through the aforementioned cupcakes, as Chaz outperformed our wildest expectations, the upperclassmen matured into their roles (hell, even far-too-common scapegoat and noted internet crazy person Freddie Riley evolved into a more-than-adequate perimeter defender and occasional hot shooting hand off the bench!), and the Minutemen basketball team, once greeted by only a smattering of applause in their own home arena, were the hottest ticket in town. That beautiful afternoon against Saint Louis, a spirited victory over a great team in front of a raucous crowd, was unthinkable just for months earlier. This team had arrived. And while they didn’t quite sneak into the big dance in the end, an entertaining run to the NIT semis in New York served as the ultimate tease.
Last time we went through this, you’ll recall, He Who Shall Not Be Named jumped ship for the greener pastures (as in, literally a whole state consisting of grass and little else), and the excitement of the NIT run was drained out faster than a Lowell junkie coming off a crack high. We looked around and realized we had Gaffney, Harris, and a disheartened Chris Lowe who could no longer run the system that made him so successful as a junior. The rest of the cupboard was pretty damn dry, and the rough patch that followed was unsurprising.
This is nothing like that time. UMass is bringing just about everyone back from that bunch. The only losses in the offseason are Sean Carter (who was great, but whose successor looks absolutely ready to go in Lalanne) and possibly spark plug Javorn Farrell, whose season is still up in the air depending on how quickly his injury heals and whether or not he decides to take a redshirt. Everyone else is a year younger and wiser, Lalanne and Sampson Carter are back from injuries, and the freshman class of Davis, Bergantino and Freeman, while green, will not be counted on for anything just yet.
I know, it’s hard not to keep harping on it and/or jinxing the hell out of it, but how can this team not be better this year? Chaz Williams now has a full season of experience under his belt. Terrell Vinson’s NIT run was his best basketball since his freshman year, and he and Freddie Riley will have added motivation of this being their last hurrahs. Sampson Carter has built himself up like a beast, and he and Cady Lalanne both seem refreshed and ready to go based on everything we’ve heard. They give this team offense inside that – no disrespect to Sean, of course – this team lacked at times last year. Raphiael Putney is a unique guy who fits so well into this system it’s scary. Jesse Morgan now has experience under his belt and is a known quantity. Maxie Esho showed flashes of brilliance all year long and I think he’s ready to step into a bigger role. Honestly, it does kinda suck losing Farrell, who struggled through much of the regular season but came alive in the conference tourney and NIT, and is a vocal leader as well, but he may be back in time for help this team tackle the best Atlantic 10 field in conference history.
Here’s our preseason picks:
Team MVP: Chaz Williams
He’s the most important thing to happen to this program since Camby. There, I said it. There is absolutely nothing about this kid that would suggest anything less than what he brought to the table last year. If anything, with his drive and motivation and the weapons around him, he just might be even better, if that’s possible. If that’s the case, look out.
Most Improved Player: Sampson Carter
It’s a trendy pick, sure, but honestly, before he went down last year, I was calling this a few games in. He bring a dimension to this team that could make them truly dangerous. He can shoot, he can bang, he can run, he can defend…and now he’s healthy. And jacked like a motherfucker. Don’t say we didn’t tell you so.
Biggest Win You Don’t See Coming: Vs. NC State
Okay, pre-emptive since they have to beat Providence (and the Wolfpack have to…ahem…beat Penn State) for this to even happen. But you heard it here first. UMass is going to knock off the Wolfpack in a tight matchup and come screaming onto the national scene. I told you I’m an optimist.
Game that Scares the Shit out of Me: at Rhode Island
Because if you’ll recall, Matt and I were there last year, and they fucking stormed the court. Not to mention URI figures to be even worse this year, but of course playing UMass is absolutely their Super Bowl, and our guys will have their thoughts ahead to the conference tourney by then. If UMass is watching the bubble late in the year, they cannot afford another loss to a 300+ RPI team, as the Rams will certainly be again (they lost by double-digits in their home opener to Norfolk State. That’s apparently a school now. Nuff said). Who knows what happens if the Minutemen hadn’t lost that awful, awful game at the Ryan Center last year? Don’t fucking do it again, or I will spend ALL of Matt’s money at Mohegan Sun this time.
Enough talk. I present to you two videos to watch as the Minutemen get set to take on Harvard. The first is a trip down memory lane to relive the best moments of last year. The second, and you’re off your rocker if you haven’t managed to see this video yet, is the best commercial this school’s marketing group has ever put out.
Kids, enjoy your campout. (We may make a cameo appearance. Autographs are $5 per item, three for $12.) Either way, we’ll see you in the Bill. Let’s make this season something to remember. After all, the Brotherhood isn’t just the guys on the court. It’s all of us.