So this is pretty neat, eh?
UMass is the #24 team in the land after a trio of hard-fought wins over quality, if not world-beating, competition at the Charleston Classic. Central to all of the wins was the continued emergence of Cady Lalanne as – sorry, there’s no other adequate sports cliche – an absolute beast, the best-case scenario we all envisioned for him when he first burst onto the scene his freshman year with flashes here or there. Mind you, we’re UMass fans, so we’re not used to seeing guys turn that occasional flash of brilliance here or there into something stellar. Yet here we are, with three guys legitimately doing that exact thing with Cady and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Carter and Putney. Then you throw in the two transfer guards who have both been solid from their first minute in the maroon-and-white, an adequate bench crew in Davis, Bergantino and Esho, and a stable of talented freshmen waiting in the wings for the first chance to jump in should anyone bite the injury bullet (oh UMass pls don’t let that happen btw k thx). And maybe biggest of all, you have Derek Kellogg looking at confident and comfortable at the helm as we’ve seen him yet. Granted, having his full complement of weapons and three fifth-year seniors in his starting lineup can’t hurt that cause, but just the same, he’s actually been coaching circles around his counterparts all year long now and that hasn’t always been the case.
What does this formula provide? Why, UMass’s first national ranking in college basketball in 15 years, of course. And damn doesn’t it just feel like the best feeling ever? Yeah, UMass has cracked the top five in hockey in my eight years of following the program, and men’s lacrosse was even #1 in the very recent past, but those sports don’t draw eyeballs the way hoops and football do, and lordy are we ever far from the top 25 in the latter. (But I’ll save that for a future post. This is a fun positivity post which is why I am also going to hold off on addressing the on-ice disaster we’ve been subjected to the past few weeks.) Being ranked in lax or even hockey gets you on the scrolling scorebar on ESPNU, maybe, if you’re lucky, between women’s hoops, fencing, and Quidditch.
Being ranked in men’s basketball, on the other hand, gets you into the big show, as silly as it sounds. Every single major sports outlet shows top-25 scores, and most radio news recaps will mention them. Monday, UMass was the #3 story on ESPN.com’s right-hand scrollbar and dominated the actual write-up for the historic return. (We’re still the #1 story on the NCAA men’s basketball tab when you scroll over it!) Hell, even the Globe felt compelled to…errr, throw in a link to the AP story, buried under Red Sox hot stove coverage. But hey, you gotta start somewhere. And for the college basketball and sports media world as a whole, that little #24, as silly as it sounds, makes all the difference. Lots of teams start with undefeated runs. Missouri State is 5-0. So is Saint Mary’s. And Incarnate Word. Hell, just a few years back, even we were 7-0! And not a single shit was given that day, nor is it today about the other teams I mentioned. (Someone game Saint Mary’s a few votes in the coaches poll, but….yawn, what were we talking about again?) UMass’s 6-0 start this year stands out because its competition has been legitimate: four major conference teams, last year’s #2 RPI squad, and a better-than-advertised mid-major. The reward? Publicity, and plenty of it, and nothing could be better for recruiting.
With great power, of course, comes great sports cliche-ability, in the form of targets on your back, bulletin board material, trap games, blah, blah, blah. If any UMass team in my memory, in any sport, has the mental fortitude to not let fame, fortune, and platinum records go to their heads, this would be it. It starts next week in Ypsilanti of all places, against one of the only foes this team blew out last year. Eastern Michigan will have its students back from break, and the allure of the elusive ranked foe applies to the have-nots as well. UMass will have more tests against bigger names Providence, Florida State, and BYU before 2013 is done. (And they also play Northern Illinois and, who knows, maybe the Huskies will have Jordan Lynch suit up for the hoops team too, he’s just that good.) So the temptation to look past this game to BYU, for instance, is very real – and that makes this a great test for the team.
It just feels unfair to have to wait until then, especially if UMass ends up getting leapt-over by a few of the also-receiving-votes teams, but whatever. The drought is over, and I think you’ll agree this is as legit a team as this school has had in any of the Big Three major sports since Marcus Camby was here. Bask in the glow, because this is really happening and we’re along with you for the ride.