The anatomy of a 16-year drought

Last modified: Thursday, April 10, 2014
AMHERST — When the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team walked off the floor at the Georgia Dome, people were disappointed. The coaches, players and fans all thought the Minutemen had a chance to beat Saint Louis that day.

Still, people thought that the experience would be good for this fairly young team with almost everyone coming back.

But there was no tournament the next year or the following year, or the year after that. Nobody realized that game was the end of an era.

From 1992 to 1998, the NCAA tournament was a permanent part of March at UMass. It was something passionate supporters scheduled vacations around and kept casual fans entertained until baseball season. People naively believed it would stay that way for the foreseeable future.

But for the next 15 seasons, Selection Sunday and bracket pools all came and went without the Minutemen being included. Before UMass’ return to the dance this year, 238 schools participated, including all of UMass’ most hated rivals during its time on the sideline.

It wasn’t UMass’ longest drought. The NCAA tournament started in 1939 and the Minutemen didn’t qualify until 1962. Thirty years then passed until they made the 1992 tournament. But, with a field of 68 and a conference that gets multiple bids every year, 15 years is a long time.

No warning signs

There was no reason to suspect that the 1998-99 season would be any different from past seasons. In fact, expectations were high for coach Bruiser Flint and the Minutemen. The roster was stocked with key veterans Lari Ketner, Monty Mack, Charlton Clarke and Mike Babul. Only Tyrone Weeks was gone from the core of the 1997-98 squad. Weeks had been good, but losing his 10.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game didn’t seem like reason to panic.

The optimism wasn’t confined locally. UMass was ranked No. 24 in the preseason and No. 23 after beating Niagara in the season opener. But losses to a Ron Artest-led St. John’s team, College of Charleston and Marshall knocked the Minutemen out of the poll and below .500.

They scrapped their way back to 8-8 and gained some optimism. The 1996-97 team started 2-9, but came together and earned itself an at-large bid to the NCAA field. To get to 8-8, UMass beat Saint Joseph’s and Kansas and looked poised to make a run.

Instead, it lost four of the next five games and sputtered to the finish line at 14-16. It was the first year with no postseason of any kind since 1989.

During the offseason, factions grew in the athletic department between Flint and his supporters, and athletic director Bob Marcum and his. They clashed on the makeup of the schedule and what should be expected of the team. A 17-16 finish and an NIT berth in 2000 did nothing to ease the tensions.

Near misses

UMass spent several years on the NCAA tournament bubble during the drought. Only the selection committee knows how close the Minutemen came to making the field, but the committee had nothing to do with the first close call in 2001.

With Flint’s job on the line, UMass stumbled to a 2-9 start making his firing seem inevitable at the start of conference play. But his players, who publicly talked about trying to save their coach’s job, came together and went 11-5 in conference play. After beating St. Bonaventure in the Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals, UMass upset No. 21 Saint Joseph’s to earn a date with Temple in the championship game, where an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament was on the line.

The Minutemen led 55-53 late when Kitwana Rhymer tripped chasing a rebound he didn’t come up with. Without saying a word, he slapped the floor hard. He appeared to be frustrated at himself, but referee Donnie Gray called a technical foul.

Rhymer was stunned, Flint was furious and Temple was energized. The Owls surged to a 76-65 win.

Tears flowed in the locker room after the game and Flint was fired two days later.

Steve Lappas, Flint’s replacement, never got his legs under him. His second recruiting class was centered around guard Mike Lasme and big man Stephen Briggs. But Lasme, who showed star potential at shooting guard, transferred after one season for a chance to play point guard. Lappas then kicked Briggs, who never played a game, off the team for off the court issues.

Their departures set Lappas back. After three straight losing seasons, the Minutemen showed progress in Lappas’ fourth year finishing 16-12 with an upset of rival Connecticut. But fans had abandoned Lappas and even big games were played in a near empty Mullins Center. Athletic director John McCutcheon fired him after the 2005 season.

Life on the bubble

After leading Eastern Kentucky to an Ohio Valley Conference crown, Travis Ford was an up-and-coming coach and an outside-the-box hire when McCutcheon tabbed him to replace Lappas. The Kentucky native’s only tie to Massachusetts was Rick Pitino, the UMass grad whom he’d played for at the University of Kentucky.

Ford restructured the roster quickly with transfers Gary Forbes, Luke Bonner and Etienne Brower, and went 13-15 in his first year. Those players joined Lappas holdovers Rashaun Freeman and Stephane Lasme to finish the 2006-07 regular season 23-7 and share first place in the Atlantic 10 at 13-3.

In most years, before and after, that would have been good enough for an NCAA bid. But the combination of a subpar Atlantic 10 and a weak nonconference schedule that included St. Francis, Jacksonville State, Savannah State, Central Connecticut and Yale, meant that the Minutemen entered the conference tournament on the bubble.

On the eve of the event, influenza swept through the Minuteman roster leaving much of the team sick and dehydrated. They stayed with Saint Louis for much of the game before falling in overtime.

Before the NCAA tournament field was announced, it was clear the Minutemen wouldn’t be included. After seven years of no postseason, the National Invitation Tournament was embraced. UMass beat Alabama in overtime in the first round before falling to West Virginia.

After Lasme and Freeman graduated, Ford fully utilized his up-tempo, full-court pressure, run-and-gun system in 2007-08. UMass beat Syracuse and Boston College on the road during the regular season and spent most of the year as a team projected to make the NCAA tournament in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology predictions on ESPN.

A big part of the reason many fans were hesitant to believe that the 2013-14 UMass team had finally done enough to earn a bid, was the memory of 2008.

Ford’s biggest nemeses at UMass were weak nonconference schedules and the Atlantic 10 tournament. Like the year before, the Minutemen didn’t build enough equity before conference play and the Atlantic 10 tournament was a disaster.

Against Charlotte in the quarterfinal, UMass led by as many as 18 points in the second half, but collapsed. Only the selection committee knows if one more win would have sewed up a spot for the Minutemen, but without that win, they were left out again.

Despite its disappointment, UMass regrouped in the NIT and beat Syracuse and Florida to reach the finals at Madison Square Garden, where it fell to Ohio State. The run was enough to make Ford a popular candidate for coaching vacancies. He drew interest from Providence and Louisiana State before famously announcing he was staying. He and McCutcheon announced a new contract at the team banquet, but he never signed it. Enticed by a massive contract offer, Ford left for Oklahoma State.

Link to the past

Derek Kellogg was the point guard on UMass’ NCAA teams from 1992-1995, and a rising star as a Memphis assistant coach under John Calipari, the architect behind those tournament trips. He was an easy choice to lead the program and energize the fan base.

Kellogg actually moved into Ford’s house, but found the program’s cupboards largely bare. Forbes, Brower and Dante Milligan graduated. Point guard Chris Lowe struggled in the dribble-drive motion offense that Kellogg brought with him.

Ricky Harris thrived and Tony Gaffney blossomed under Kellogg, but they didn’t have enough help. The young players Ford had recruited proved incapable of competing at the Atlantic 10 level.

Of the recruits, only Gary Correia and Matt Hill, who spent much of his career injured and the rest as a reserve, completed four years. Trey Lang, who was once considered the prized piece in the class, quit basketball then returned as a seldom-used walk-on.

As he began the rebuilding process, Kellogg was under .500 each of his first two seasons (12-18, 12-20) and at .500 (15-15) in his third.

The arrival of point guard Chaz Williams, a Hofstra transfer, and Kellogg’s decision to scrap the dribble-drive motion for an up-tempo attack similar to Ford’s produced excellent results in 2011-12. UMass went 22-11 in the regular season but a soft schedule led to an RPI of 75 and no chance on Selection Sunday.

The Minutemen advanced to the NIT semifinals before bowing out against Stanford at Madison Square Garden.

The following season, UMass’ bubble status differed depending on the bracketologist.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had UMass just outside the field for most of last year, while CBS’ Jerry Palm had them just inside. The Minutemen’s biggest drawback was their lack of signature wins. They were 0-5 against the RPI’s top 25 and just 2-7 against the top 50. They never proved they could beat a sure-fire tournament team.

Still, there was hope on Selection Sunday when the team gathered at Kellogg’s home, but 68 names were called and UMass wasn’t among them.

UMass earned another NIT bid, its fifth since 1998, but it seemed apparent quickly that the players’ hearts weren’t in it this time. Stony Brook pulled away in the second half, ending the Minutemen’s run before it even got started.

The 2013-14 season represented a last shot of sorts. If UMass didn’t earn a bid, Williams, Sampson Carter and Raphiael Putney would join Gary Forbes, Stephane Lasme, Rashaun Freeman, Ricky Harris and others in the club of great Minutemen who never played in the NCAA tournament.

Williams, who’d taken last year’s exclusion particularly hard, pledged at the beginning of the season that the Minutemen would do well enough that there would be no doubt come Selection Sunday. There was nobody happier than Williams when “UMass” finally appeared on the screen to officially end the drought.

“Me and my teammates are truly blessed,” Williams said. “We came in this year working tremendously hard for this moment.”

Now that they’re in, they will try to end another drought: it’s been 18 years since UMass won a game in the tournament.

“Now we know we have work to do,” Williams said.

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