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Editorial: UMass hoop relevant again

It’s taken much longer than most fans expected, but the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team is finally back. The Minutemen returned to the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time in 15 years this week at No. 24. UMass is relevant again nationally after starting the season 6-0 against one of the toughest schedules in the country.

And best of all for local fans, the Minutemen are not only winning, they are playing exciting, high-scoring basketball with a well-balanced team that has shown poise when challenged. If it stays healthy and avoids a collapse in the Atlantic 10 tournament, UMass should finally return to the NCAA tournament next March for the first time since 1998, the last of seven straight years in the “Big Dance.”

This season’s six wins have included victories over well-regarded teams in strong conferences: Boston College (ACC), LSU (SEC), Nebraska (Big 10), and then-No. 19 New Mexico (Mountain West). Half the wins came in four days to win the Charleston Classic a week ago. The Minutemen are averaging nearly 84 points a game and outscoring their opponents by almost 10 points.

This is a veteran UMass team led by senior Chaz Williams, one of the top point guards in the nation who is on the watch lists for both the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year Award and the Cousy Award. Williams is one of five Minutemen scoring in double figures, joined by seniors Sampson Carter and Raphiael Putney, junior Cady Lalanne and sophomore transfer Derrick Gordon. Lalanne, a 6-10 center, has opened eyes with his strong play averaging 17.2 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. He was named most valuable player of the Charleston Classic.

It is a team built by Coach Derek Kellogg which is playing his up-tempo style of basketball. In his sixth season as coach at UMass, Kellogg is as steady on the sideline as he was during his playing days as the Minuteman point guard under John Calipari in the 1990s. Not a showman, Kellogg speaks with a humility that is refreshing.

“I think the one good thing for me was that, because I was a player at UMass and have showed a lot of loyalty, people may have been a little more patient with me than they would’ve been with an outsider coming in,” Kellogg told CBSSports.com this week. “So that part’s been good, and it’s helped me learn a lot as a coach. I think I’ve improved every year as a coach. ... And what you see now is a much more mature team, coach and program.”

Kellogg not only played for Calipari, he was an assistant under him at Memphis. So Kellogg was well schooled by Calipari, one of the top coaches in the country who led the Minutemen to prominence during the 1990s. To his credit, Kellogg is no Calipari clone and has been most successful during the past two years at UMass after he changed the team’s style of play to reflect his preference to play fast — resulting in the Minutemen averaging 70 possessions per game last season. That style produced two straight seasons with more than 20 wins and berths in the National Invitation Tournament.

The 40-year-old Kellogg also brings deep roots in the Pioneer Valley to his job at UMass. He grew up in Springfield where he graduated from Cathedral High School. His parents live in Belchertown. Kellogg remains active in the community, particularly with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

The last Minuteman basketball coach with two straight years of 20-plus wins was Travis Ford, who clearly had his eye on a bigger stage. He left after three seasons for Oklahoma State. While Kellogg in time may look for other challenges, he seems content for now restoring the pride and popularity to the UMass basketball program that he knew when he played.

After a game at Eastern Michigan on Tuesday, the Minutemen return to the Valley to play BYU in the Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase at the MassMutual Center in Springfield at 1:30 p.m. Dec. 7. There are games later in the month at the Mullins Center in Amherst against Northern Illinois (3 p.m., Dec. 14) and Providence (6 p.m., Dec. 28). If you’re a basketball fan, put those games on your calendar — the Minutemen are back.

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