Freddie Riley finds success, happiness playing for UMass
University of Massachusetts guard Freddie Riley advances the ball during a game against Xavier in Cincinnati earlier this year.
Freddie Riley drives to the basket in a game during his freshman season with the University of Massachusetts basketball team.
Freddie Riley is shown as a freshman guard for the University of Massachusetts basketball team.
UMass senior guard Freddie Riley shoots a 3-pointer during a game against East Carolina at the Mullins Center on Dec. 22, 2012.
Freddie Riley takes a shot during his freshman season with the University of Massachusetts basketball team.
AMHERST — Freddie Riley’s friends do a double take when they see his University of Massachusetts student identification card.
The picture was taken when he got it almost four years ago during orientation before his freshman year. The young man in the picture has short hair and a clean-shaven face, a kid away from home for the first time, about to start the next chapter of his life.
It doesn’t much resemble the man it belongs to anymore. Riley, now a senior guard for the Minutemen, has dreadlocks that fall beyond his shoulders. He has a mustache, a chin beard and sideburns that frame his face.
“When I meet someone new they’re like ‘Whoa that’s you?’” Riley said.
It was him. But the Freddie Riley who will be in the starting lineup at 9 tonight when UMass takes on George Washington in the Atlantic 10 Tournament neither looks like nor feels like the young Floridian in that picture from the summer of 2009.
Over his four years in Amherst, Riley’s growth and change has been more than just the length of his hair.
The highly touted guard out of Ocala, Fla., by way of Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, appeared to have star potential at times as a freshman, showing an ability to score in bunches when he got hot from behind the 3-point line.
Riley returned for his sophomore year with high expectations. But after opening the season with 28 points in a come-from-behind win over Rider, he struggled to find consistency shooting the ball. That began a slump that lasted the better part of two seasons.
For most of his life, his ability to make shots had defined him. His long-range prowess had earned him recruiting interest and eventually a scholarship. Riley hadn’t needed to be a good defender then. His ability to make shots made up for everything else. But at the end of his sophomore year, as his shooting percentage went down, so did his minutes and eventually his confidence.
The struggles carried over into his junior year. With teammates Jesse Morgan and Raphiael Putney emerging as reliable scorers, Riley became almost a luxury item for UMass coach Derek Kellogg. If he was making shots, Kellogg could play him a lot. But if he was missing, there were other guys to turn to.
There would be nights when Riley would look like he was about to break out again. He scored 14 against East Carolina and 20 against Siena in December 2011, shooting 10-for-16 from 3-point range in the two wins.
He opened conference play in January 2012 with 13 points against Fordham, but went scoreless in his next two games and had more games with no points (five) than in double figures (two). His confidence cratered. No amount of extra shooting seemed to help.
Riley’s thoughtful nature worsened the problem. While some of his teammates could shake off a sting of rough shooting nights and bounce back quickly, Riley couldn’t stop thinking about his slump.
“I don’t think it was so much me going to the gym. It was all mental with me. I started second-guessing myself a lot. I didn’t have a lot of confidence. I think that’s why I shot the ball so poorly sometimes,” Riley said.
“I wasn’t confident in myself. I didn’t think the people on the team had any confidence in me either,” he added. “I’m the type of person that I’m constantly thinking. When you’re like that you might make up scenarios in your head that aren’t even true. That got in my way.”
Touched by tragedies
His life off the court was worse. Riley, who witnessed his father’s fatal heart attack as an 11-year-old, has been touched by more tragedies at 23 than most people will see in a lifetime.
In January 2011, his boyhood friend T.J. Gordon was killed outside a bowling alley in Ocala. Just under a year later his cousin Towayne Scott, who he was also close to, was killed on New Year’s Day in Philadelphia. Riley’s Facebook profile and cover pictures are memorials to both of them.
Basketball had always been Riley’s escape. No matter what happened off the court, he could put it aside for at least a little while when he played. He planned to use the game to make everything else better, to get a scholarship, to get a degree. He dreamed of a professional career so he could help his mom, who raised him after his father died of a heart attack when he was 11. He wanted to help his brother Daryl, who has been in jail since 2007, get a fresh start.
But as he struggled on the court, all that seemed harder to reach.
He’d often vent his frustration on Twitter. He’d complain about himself and UMass and his life. Those tweets ranged from angry, and at times vulgar, to sad. He once tweeted “My hoop dreams = dead.”
Many UMass fans who followed him on Twitter didn’t want to hear him complain and told him so, further alienating Riley. In hindsight, Riley admitted he made a mistake. He deleted his old Twitter account and started a new one where he’s been sending much more positive messages.
“That was all a part of me being immature tweeting things like that. I ended up making a new Twitter,” he said. “I didn’t want to give people a reason to dislike me because of my tweets.”
Slow start as senior
As his senior year began, there was nothing early in the season that hinted that a breakout was coming. Entering the year, Riley was behind junior Jesse Morgan, who had firmly established himself as the starter. Riley didn’t score in either of the first two games and averaged 2.4 points over the first nine.
On a late November afternoon, he sought out associate athletic director Tim Kenney, who travels with the men’s basketball team as both an administrator and the color commentator on road radio broadcasts. Kenney spends a lot of time with the players, making himself available as a sounding board. Riley vented his disappointment.
“I talked about my situation with him. He told me to keep my head up and be happy and to enjoy my senior year as much as I could and that things would begin to work out for me,” Riley said. “He was right. I thank him for sitting down and having that talk with me. When I started to be happier and enjoyed my teammates and started to enjoy Amherst, that’s when things started to turn around for me.”
Not trusting his shot to return, Riley committed himself to playing better defense in an attempt to earn playing time. It seemed to spur his offense.
Against East Carolina and Northern Illinois in December he had 14 and 11 points, respectively, his first back-to-back double-figure outputs in almost a year.
Kellogg, who’d been experimenting with a three-guard lineup that put Riley, Morgan and point guard Chaz Williams on the floor together, began using the combination for longer and longer stretches which opened the door for Riley to play more minutes.
He scored 18 points off the bench against Eastern Michigan on Jan. 5, shooting 6-for-9 from 3-point range as his minutes began to climb during a seven-game winning streak for UMass heading into conference play.
But in the Minutemen’s Atlantic 10 opener at Saint Louis, Morgan was bumped going to the basket and crashed to the floor yelling in pain while holding his knee.
During some of Riley’s toughest stretches, Morgan had been one of his most encouraging teammates. So even though Morgan’s injury, which was later diagnosed as a season-ending torn ACL, meant more playing time for Riley, he took no joy from it.
“We have a similar upbringing,”Riley said. “I was really sad when he got hurt. Jesse has always been supportive even when I wasn’t playing a lot. I’m not happy he got hurt. I wouldn’t want anyone to go though an injury like that.”
Before the injury, Morgan was the team’s second leading scorer (13.4 points per game) and had led the Minutemen in scoring in six of the first 13 games. He also was the team’s top perimeter defender.
His injury depressed previously optimistic fans who wondered how, against the best Atlantic 10 in years, UMass could manage without Morgan.
But Riley seized his chance. He more than doubled his scoring average from before Morgan’s injury (5.6 points per game to 11.7) and took on the role of guarding the opponent’s top defender. The team continued to win while Riley’s shooting accuracy finally returned.
Riley scored in double figures in seven of the final eight regular-season games, including 18 points in the Minutemen’s win at Xavier on March 2.
“Since I’ve been in college this is the best I’ve played for as long as I’ve been playing,” he said. “It feels good.”
Kellogg said he is proud to see Riley’s success.
“To see a guy like Freddie not quit and go somewhere else, he’s fought through,” Kellogg said. “To see it all come together in the last months of his senior year is gratifying as a coach. He’s been able to have a great senior year.”
Riley said he’s a better person having dealt with his crisis of confidence than he might have been if it never happened.
“I’m thankful for that whole experience of not playing as much as I thought I should have,” he said. “It made me more mature and made me a better person.”
In an interview in 2011, Riley said he did not want to return to Ocala, but now when his basketball career is over, he wants to do his part to make it better.
“I want to go home. I can definitely see myself going back there doing speeches, clinics, anything to help younger guys out,” Riley said. “I really want to be able to start an AAU program. It’s a chance to show people that there’s more out there that you don’t get a chance to see.
“I have friends at home that have never been outside of Florida or have never been outside of Ocala,” he added. “The whole thing is to expose to them that there’s so much more out in the country and out in the world than what they see in their neighborhood and their high school.
“If I have an AAU program, not every kid is going to get a scholarship, but if they travel around, it will motivate them to improve their life to make them want to go to college and do something positive with their life,” Riley said. “I just want them to know if they believe, work hard and do well in school, anything is possible.”
His mother Norma Riley, who was in Amherst for senior day last week, marveled at her son’s development.
“It depressed me sometimes because I knew he wasn’t happy,” she said Tuesday as she prepared her UMass shirt to wear while watching tonight’s game on NBC Sports. “He’s so much happier. He looks like a different person. His attitude and everything is different now. I’m so glad.”
She will likely be back in Amherst in May to see Riley graduate with a degree in African-American studies.
The upswing on the court has been mirrored in his personal life. Riley has been dating the same woman for two years. His brother Daryl will be released from prison later this year.
This year’s success has almost certainly opened doors that will lead to a professional basketball career after college. Despite the obstacles he’s faced and tragedies he’s endured, Riley is happy.
“I’m just happy to be alive in the position that I’m in,” he said.
Even Twitter, once the outlet for some of his darker thoughts, reflects a new Riley. Under his new handle Dreadie Riley, he tweeted, “Shout out to the people that never stopped believing in me” and then after senior night, “Thank you so much to everyone that came to the game tonight and making this a night that I’ll never forget. It’s been a great 4 years.”
Matt Vautour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at @GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.