Matt Vautour: UMass returns to college basketball’s forefront — the NCAA tournament

Last modified: Thursday, April 10, 2014
At some point Monday or maybe Tuesday, President Barack Obama will take a break from thinking about Crimea or the economy and make a really important decision:

UMass or the play-in game winner?

As part of his annual “Baracketology” bracket prediction on ESPN, he will look at the Midwest Region and determine whether he thinks the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team can beat the winner of Tennessee and Iowa.

It’s a fairly safe bet that not since Bill Clinton attended a UMass-George Washington game in 1995, has the leader of the free world put much thought into the Minutemen’s chances to win a game.

Obama won’t be the only one. Countless actors, athletes and newsmakers will publicly reveal their brackets as for three weeks, college basketball rises to the front burner of the sports world.

In March, the gap between inclusion and irrelevant is wide. Between now and Friday UMass, like every other matchup in the tournament, will be discussed and debated across ESPN’s many platforms and on sports radio shows from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine, and Seattle to Jacksonville, Fla.

The magic of office bracket pools, and pretty much every office has one, means UMass will be back in the people’s consciousness, even to a small degree, who haven’t thought about the Minutemen in years. Ardent fans will wonder whether UMass would rather play up-tempo Iowa or grinding Tennessee. The casual ones who pick based on mascot strength will wonder whether a Minuteman can beat a Volunteer or a Hawkeye.

Almost immediately after the Minutemen received a higher-than-expected six seed, Twitter was overflowing with people who couldn’t wait to call UMass overrated and a likely upset victim even though it wasn’t clear whom the Minutemen would even be playing yet.

Still, being considered overrated beats not being considered at all. Even at the peak of UMass’ two deep NIT runs in the past 10 years, there wasn’t the attention that a single NCAA tournament trip will bring. Try to find a T-shirt anywhere commemorating a trip to the NIT’s final four.

It would get even better if UMass wins a game. Its up-tempo playing style tends to win over fans in a hurry. Casual fans watch the tournament for upsets and players who go from unknown to legendary. If he plays well, Chaz Williams could be one of those guys. His speed, small stature, big heart and apparent joy that he plays with are likely to make him a fan favorite fast.

If the Minutemen can beat Tennessee or Iowa, they’ll be a very popular team to root for Sunday. Not only would they be the underdog against likely Duke, but the Blue Devils are among most despised teams in all of Division I.

No matter what happens when the ball is tipped at 2:45 p.m. in Raleigh, N.C., UMass fans figure to be happy for the next several days. There figures to be a lot of people calling out sick on Friday, and those who do go to work aren’t likely to reach their normal levels of productivity.

They can stop wondering when the Minutemen are finally going to get back to the dance. For fans too young to remember the 1990s, a group that includes every traditional UMass student, there is a newness and novelty to this run that makes it particularly magical. For longtime fans, the 15 missed tournaments have reinforced just how special it is to be part of March Madness.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage