UMass fans hail return to NCAA tournament

Thursday, April 10, 2014
AMHERST — For the past 22 years, Ann Malinowski of Easthampton has been such a dedicated spectator at University of Massachusetts men’s basketball games that players know her as “Ann the Fan.”

On Sunday night, Malinowski joined dozens of other Minutemen enthusiasts, along with the team and coaching staff, in packing the Amherst Brewing Co. to celebrate the accomplishments of her “boys” making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.

“I’m just happy for the whole bunch of them,” Malinowski said. “What a great bunch of guys.”

The Minutemen earned a No. 6 seed and will be playing either the Iowa Hawkeyes or Tennessee Volunteers on Friday in Raleigh, N.C. When the selection was announced during a CBS broadcast, there was loud applause throughout the restaurant, the waving of maroon pom-poms and brief chants of “Let’s Go UMass!”

Tom Kucab of Longmeadow, a 40-year fan of UMass basketball, passed up a corned beef and cabbage meal so he could soak in the atmosphere as the team became part of the field of 68 teams competing for the Division 1 basketball championship.

“We’ve been waiting 16 years to dance,” Kucab said.

A season-ticket holder for 20 years, Tom Kennedy of East Longmeadow said the selection marks a return to the glory achieved under coach John Calipari, when the team was annually part of the tournament and made it as far as the Final Four in 1996.

“We’re excited up here,” Kennedy said. “We got spoiled in the 1990s. Fifteen years out of the tournament, you realize how tough it is.”

Howard Natenshon of Greenfield, who calls himself an unofficial photographer for the team, described the absence from the tournament as a “long void” for the faithful fans, and the return to the tournament as the comeback of a premier sports team to the Pioneer Valley.

“The excitement is back,” Natenshon said. “It’s wonderful to have something so close by.”

While many fans reveled in having UMass make it to the tournament, some of those were too young to have experienced the last such trip.

Jarrett Saunders of Amherst brought his children Ryan, 11, and Kendra, 9, to meet other fans and get a feeling for what this was like.

“It’s been really fun. This is like getting back to the community feel of the Calipari days,” Saunders said.

Ryan said it was an exciting evening. He shook hands with junior forward Maxie Esho and had his picture taken with senior point guard Chaz Williams.

“It’s been cool,” Kendra said. “I liked meeting all the players.”

Malinowski said she has gotten close to many of the players, often giving them hugs before and after games from her seat three rows from the court. “The camaraderie is what I love, both on the floor and off the floor,” Malinowski said.

Before departing from the restaurant as the event wound down, Malinowski stood outside getting her picture taken with freshman forward Demetrius Dyson, one of the players she hopes will continue the exciting brand of basketball. Other fans, many decked out in UMass hats and shirts, posed for photographs with their favorite players, each of whom was wearing gray sweatshirts reading “The UMass Way.”

The bond between players and fans has made this season special, Natenshon said. The mutual affection is obvious, he said, even with the team’s biggest star.

“Chaz Williams is a brilliant basketball player and a really nice guy,” Natenshon said.

The community feel starts at the top of the program with coach Derek Kellogg, the former UMass player and Springfield native who’s in his sixth season at the helm.

“I just love Derek Kellogg. He’s a gentleman and he’s done a great job with the boys,” Malinowski said.

“Derek Kellogg is bringing the pride back,” Kennedy said.

Kucab said he has enjoyed seeing the juniors and seniors grow as a team. “They’ve been a fun bunch and play a nice brand of ball,” Kucab said. “They play the game the way it should be played.”

Kucab acknowledged, though, that many games have been both wonderful and stressfully “heart-thumping.”

Rosie Caine-Natenshon said she only went to one game with her husband, the season-ending loss to Saint Louis. But she said the play was elegant and dramatic. “The atmosphere was electric. There was hardly an empty seat,” she said.

When the UMass seed was known, fans began analyzing what this meant for the team’s chances.

Kennedy observed that the committee showed respect to both UMass, for playing a difficult schedule, and the Atlantic 10 conference, which got six bids, more than a so-called mid-major conference would typically receive.

If UMass wins its first game on Friday, it would then likely have to play the Duke Blue Devils, the Atlantic Coast Conference team that has been a college basketball power for decades.

“Kind of tough playing Duke in Raleigh,” Kennedy said.

Saunders said he would like to see UMass get at least a couple of tournament victories this year.

“I’m expecting Sweet 16,” Saunders said. “Anything more than that would be icing on the cake.”

Being in the tournament is satisfying, but Kucab said he hopes the Minutemen win another six games which, if it were to happen, would mean bringing a national championship to Amherst.

“We won 24,” Kucab said. “Six more doesn’t seem unrealistic.”