Before the year even started, ESPN dubbed the 2013-14 college basketball season “The Year of the Freshman.”
And with good reason. Between Andrew Wiggins at Kansas, Jabari Parker at Duke, Aaron Gordon at Arizona and everybody at Kentucky, rookies have already made a huge impact and figure to continue to do so.
But in Amherst, it’s the veteran presence that’s led the University of Massachusetts to its best start since 1995. Its current No. 24 ranking and 6-0 start is more the culmination of several years of building, not just the product of three good weeks.
Because of transfer rules, injuries, redshirts and academics, the Minutemen are loaded with players who are on track to spend five years in college. Of the six UMass players averaging 20 or more minutes per game, five are in at least their fourth year of college.
Even Derrick Gordon, who is a newcomer to UMass, has considerable experience in his third year of college basketball. He played a season at Western Kentucky and helped lead the Hilltoppers to the 2012 NCAA tournament.
“It takes years of experience and building. Going through the labors taught us so much,” said senior forward Sampson Carter, who is enjoying career highs of 13.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. “We’ve gone through the wars, the trials and tribulations. It taught us how to stick together when we’re down to be able to pull through.”
Senior point guard Chaz Williams agreed.
“We’re been around the block a few times. We’re tried a few things and seen what worked and what didn’t,” Williams said. “We understand what works for our team and the program and what coach expects us to do.”
Kellogg said while having veterans to set an example is nice, having the right veterans setting the right example is critical.
“It has to be the right time and right guys, that are good players that come in and work hard. You want your culture to be set by guys that do it the right way. Chaz is kind of the heart and soul of what we do, but Sampson and (Raphiael) Putney have done a great job of being right there with him. Those three have really taken on the leadership role. It’s not just on the floor, but how we carry ourselves. These guys have all been through a lot of the battles we talk about.”
Williams said he hoped that the investment of time and work the seniors are putting in, extends beyond their time in Amherst.
“We want to show these (younger) guys that this is the way UMass basketball is. We want to show them that we have a winning spirit and will do anything in our power to win. They follow in our footsteps,” he said. “Me, Sampson and Putney always talk about how our time here is limited. We’re on the clock. I talk to Trey Davis all the time and tell him what he needs to do next year. The young guys all want to learn.”
Kellogg liked seeing his older players coach his younger ones.
“When you have a group of guys that have been here for a while that have put in the time and effort, it means a little bit more,” Kellogg said. “Having older more mature guys that can help lead the young kids is how I always envisioned the program. That’s how it was when I was a player.”
Despite their early success, this group’s resolve still figures to be tested by something.
“We haven’t had the adversity that everyone goes through,” Kellogg said. “How we respond will really determine what kind of season we’re going to have.”