Slam Magazine Previews The 2009-10 Minutemen
Oct. 16, 2009
by Nick Rattner
Last year, when Coach Derek Kellogg came to the helm at the University of Massachusetts, it was a local boy done good. Kellogg, who grew up and played high school ball in Springfield, MA was a surprise point guard recruit for John Calipari during the Minuteman's successes of the early- to mid-90s. Legend has it that back then, The Cage (UMass' old arena-turned-practice-facility) would get so loud that paint would peel from the walls.
After graduating, Kellogg left The Cage's roar and began his coaching apprenticeships. For the past 10 years, while Kellogg honed his coaching chops as an assistant at Youngstown State, George Mason, and Memphis (yes, under Calipari), his alma mater became a moribund program, failing to make the NCAA Tournament. This year, Kellogg's second season, everyone in Amherst is hoping that the paint will peel again. "We're going to build a program like we did at Memphis as far as getting people involved and getting students involved and selling out the building," says Kellogg. If that can happen this year, it will be early proof that UMass is on its way back to the relevance.
The hitch is that after going 12-18 in `08-09, their centennial season, UMass graduated its all-time leader in assists (Chris Lowe, 6.4 apg in `08-09) and season leader in rebounds and blocks (Tony Gaffney, now attending training camp with the Lakers). Even so, hopes among the players remain high. Returning Minuteman senior guard Ricky Harris, who led the Atlantic 10 in scoring last season (18.2 ppg), acknowledged that "last year we didn't make it to anything," but he remains confident. "This upcoming season I feel that we have enough talent to make it to the NCAA Tournament."
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There's talent and then there's proven talent; Harris' confidence as a scorer (when the Baltimorian is asked what type of ballers his city produces, he simply says, "Scorers. Scorers."), ability to get to the line, and his leadership skills should help a team somewhat new to each other get tough early. Harris is returning with versatile guard Anthony Gurley, a red shirt junior transfer from Wake Forest, who averaged 11.2 ppg last season and 14.8 over his last five games.
Kellogg is slightly more guarded than his players about the team's chances this season, preferring instead to look at the big picture. The term "building blocks" comes up. After all, he is looking at a roster with seven new players: five freshman and two transfers. Still, there's a slight bow to hope: "I think we've got a chance to have a special team... I also think that if they guysmature quicker than normal we could be a pretty good team this year."
One thing is certain, Kellogg has his players believing that Amherst, the No. 1 college town in America, should be home to a top 25 team not unlike the ones he played and coached for. Add to that the fact that Kellogg recently inked a six-year contract and you get the feeling that the Minuteman will be making serious moves over the next several seasons. Kellogg is serious about building the state school into a national program, a goal he is up front about.
Even if Kellogg is happy to be home it doesn't mean that he's only stocking his team with local products. Whatever success the Minutemen achieve hinges on the performance of the recruits. A map highlighting the homes of his recruits reflects his national ambitions and his reputation as a top recruiter. Along with transfers from Wake Forest and Memphis, Kellogg nabbed top high school prospects from Virginia, Florida and Baltimore.
Recruiting coup Terrell Vinson (rated in the top 100 forwards by Scout) will likely spend time with fellow Baltimorite Harris on the perimeter as well as filling vacancies in the post. Vinson, a 6- 7 archetypal combo forward, made a name for himself in high school (and at The Dome) with a combination of grace and grit. He's what Kellogg describes as one of his "very, very versatile, longer, athletic guys." He should be a perfect fit for the dribble-drive motion offense and first-pass-down pressure defense that Kellogg will run (Larinaga meets Calipari).
Another freshman, Jervon Farrell is the player who, according to Kellogg, "no one is really talking about. Right now, he's pushing practice to another level." Farrell, Kellogg's first signee, is a 6-5 swingman also in the Memphis mold. Vinson and Farrell form a nice corollary to Joey Dorsey and Chris Douglas-Roberts of the `07-08 Tigers. Versatility is crucial to an offense "predicated off the dribble" and a defense that will pressure the first pass down. The vitals on all the new players confirm Kellogg's commitment to versatility and athleticism.
Freshmen Sampson Carter (6-8), Raphael Putney (6-8), and Freddie Riley (6-5) should all blend well into Kellogg's Memphis style offense and George Mason style defense. Transfers Sean Carter (Oregon State, 6-9, 225) and Hashim Bailey (Memphis, 6-10, 275) will add toughness in the post filling the void left by Gafney. All this new blood, as yet unproven, is here to infuse hope and winning into an anemic Minuteman basketball. As Kellogg notes, "These guys come in with pretty decent reputations [...] I'm hoping to reap the rewards of that in a year or two when those kids really mature and go from boys to being men."
It will certainly be up-and-down with such a young team, but according to Kellogg, "if it was easy, I don't think it would be that worthwhile at the end of the day. It's almost good that there's gonna be some tough times for these guys to see how they react." Indeed.
Looking at the Minuteman roster, Kellogg's plan becomes clear. Now it's just up to work, health, and the ever-elusive component of chemistry. Will they gel? Will they mature ahead of schedule? Will the Minuteman peel the paint again? Only time and a tough schedule will tell, but no matter it will exciting to watch them practice their dance steps. In the words of Coach Kellogg, "I think everybody can see where this thing's headed." Well...
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