Buzz is back as Cage reopens; UMass plays first regular-season game at Curry Hicks since 1993
AMHERST - When he thought his players at Memphis weren't paying attention, John Calipari would ask them an odd question.
"Are you listening to the buzz?" he'd ask them.
They looked at him and each other confused. What buzz? Calipari's assistant coaches, including Derek Kellogg who'd played for him at UMass, would suppress a smile.
There are old lights at Curry Hicks Cage that make noise when they're turned on, a persistent buzzing sound that almost resembles bugs by a lake in the summer. When there are fans or any consistent activity in the old gym, the sound blends into the background. But during quiet moments, like a break in practice, it's a very noticeable sound.
Calipari didn't bring the Cage's noisy old illumination to the Mullins Center or to Memphis, but the buzz remained part of his coaching vernacular.
There's been some nostalgia-fueled requests from fans to play a game at the Cage for years. They'll get their wish Saturday at 3 p.m. when the Minutemen host Holy Cross there. The combination of a crowd that will likely be without students, who went home for Thanksgiving, and the conflict with the 7 p.m. hockey game at the Mullins Center, which couldn't be moved because of television, made moving the game to the Cage a natural.
Kellogg, who played a season and a half in the old gym, was introduced as the school's new head coach to UMass fans at the introductory press conference/pep rally at the Cage in 2008. He looked forward to coaching there.
"I think it's a great venue and great place to play a home game. It's a great atmosphere with everyone on top of you. The noise, the heat, the temperature," said Kellogg before Friday's practice with the lights buzzing above him. "With the students not being here and Thanksgiving weekend, we'll have a nice kind of homey atmosphere."
UMass has practiced at the Cage regularly, held Midnight Madness there and even an exhibition game there in 2007. But this will be the Minutemen's first real game in the Cage since Jan. 29, 1993, an 84-74 win over the Southwest Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns, that tipped at midnight.
Students waited outside in near-freezing temperatures for hours to be the first fans in the building for that game. Almost all 4,028 fans in attendance wore white "Final Rage in the Cage" T-shirts creating a white-out atmosphere before those became trendy.
Kellogg, who scored the first points in that game, remembered the night fondly.
"It was a late game with the whole building in white T-shirts," Kellogg said. "The energy in the building was fantastic. It was a fun night."
The Minutemen are expected to wear throw-back uniform featuring the Calipari-era script "U" before "Mass" logo.
Sophomore Terrell Vinson was looking forward to the unique game.
"We play here all summer and practice here all preseason. It's going to be fun," Vinson said. "We always talk about having a game here. It's going to be a fun game to play in."
Holy Cross will try to ruin UMass' 13-game winning streak at the Cage, which dates back to a 76-75 loss to No. 25 West Virginia on Jan. 8, 1992.
The Crusaders have stumbled out of the gate, opening the year at 0-4 with losses to College of Charleston, Harvard, New Hampshire and Boston College. They've lost high-scoring games (93-84 to Charleston) and low-scoring games (55-52 to UNH), close games (UNH) and blowouts (72-49 to Harvard), but the common denominator has been defeat.
The struggles continue a difficult run in Worcester since Ralph Willard left. The Crusaders were picked to contend for the Patriot League title last year under first-year coach Sean Kearney. Instead they stumbled to a 9-22 mark, including an 84-63 loss to UMass, and Kearney was fired after just one season on the job.
Holy Cross hired Mount St. Mary's coach Milan Brown to try to resurrect the program.
Junior guard Devin Brown, who isn't related to his coach, has led the Crusaders in scoring with 12.3 points per game off the bench, while backcourt mate R.J. Evans averages 11.3.
Andrew Keister, a 6-foot-9 center, is Holy Cross' top option off the bench.
Kellogg hoped that his team's poor first half against Division II American International taught his team that it can't take any opponent lightly.
"We're not good enough to go through the motions against anybody," Kellogg said. "I don't care if it's Brandeis or the best team in our league. We can't go through the motions and expect to win. Hopefully guys are getting the message."
FARRELL AT THE POINT - Sophomore Javorn Farrell played a little point guard last year and was expected to be the No. 3 guy at the position this season. But after Daryl Traynham suffered a left foot injury, Farrell's minutes as the team's primary ball-handler figure to go up.
"I was told at the beginning of the season that I'd play a little bit of it anyway, so I've been focusing on it from the beginning," Farrell said. "I don't mind it. If you ask me what position I'd like to play, I'd prefer to be off the ball. But I don't mind it. Wherever they need me."
Kellogg was confident in Farrell's ability to handle the roll.
"I wanted to get him some more work in the preseason to guard against what just happened. Our thinnest position coming into the season was the point guard spot," Kellogg said. "But Javorn has done a good job."
Kellogg said that in the event of foul trouble or further injury that Anthony Gurley or Sampson Carter would be the emergency point guard.