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Minutemen grab 6th seed in Midwest

The UMass team erupts with loyal fans at Amherst Brewing Company Sunday as the Minutemen were awarded the sixth seed in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament's Midwest Region in Raleigh, N.C. The opponent will be the winner of Wednesday's Iowa-Tennessee game.
Recorder/J. Anthony Roberts

The UMass team erupts with loyal fans at Amherst Brewing Company Sunday as the Minutemen were awarded the sixth seed in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament's Midwest Region in Raleigh, N.C. The opponent will be the winner of Wednesday's Iowa-Tennessee game. Recorder/J. Anthony Roberts

AMHERST — Maybe it was the powers that be at CBS — or possibly just a production assistant with an itchy trigger finger — but a drought of 16 years and three days ended about 30 seconds before it really should have Sunday evening.

The UMass men’s basketball team gathered with a few hundred fans and well-wishers at Amherst Brewing Company, ready to watch the NCAA basketball tournament selection show. When it came time to reveal the Midwest Regional bracket, CBS anchor Greg Gumbel began to discuss the No. 3 seeded team, Duke, but the graphic that popped up instead was for No. 6 seed UMass playing Friday in Raleigh, N.C., creating a thunderous reaction around Amherst Brewing’s function room.

UMass’ name appeared on the screen for just a few seconds before it was suddenly pulled; clearly it had been posted prematurely. While the question “Wait, who do we play?” hung in the air, the on-air conversation moved on from the Duke-Mercer game to the No. 6/No. 11 matchup. Then the graphic reappeared, to a second full round of cheers and applause: No. 6 UMass at PNC Arena in Raleigh, Friday at 2:45 p.m. against the No. 11 seed, either Iowa or Tennessee, which will play each other in a first-round game Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio.

So ended the long wait for the Minutemen and their fans. UMass reached seven consecutive NCAA tournaments between 1992 and 1998, but none since then until this year. At 24-8 overall, but only 8-7 in their last 15 games and coming off a quarterfinal-round loss to George Washington Friday in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament, the critical numbers and metrics for NCAA tournament consideration were simply just too good to keep the Minutemen out of the Big Dance.

“We’re happy for our name to be called, but we’re not satisfied. We know we have work to do,” said senior guard Chaz Williams. “We’ve got to go out there and play our game. The committee gave us a 6 seed for a reason. We’ve worked for it, we’ve tried, and it hasn’t happened for us the past couple of years.”

Though UMass coach Derek Kellogg already had an eye toward the logistics of scouting two potential first-game opponents, instead of only one, he allowed himself to revel in the Selection Show atmosphere he enjoyed for all four years as a UMass player from 1992 to 1995.

“They’ve actually been waiting for this night for a couple of weeks now,” said Kellogg. “I’m hoping they can take all the energy that we’ve played with throughout the season. I think the guys are ready, they’re in a good frame of mind, and we want to just get down to Raleigh and play some basketball.

“We’ve got a little work to do to be compared to what Coach (John Calipari) was doing here a long time ago. But just to be mentioned with that, and having played here — to me, we’re back where we belong.”

It was March 13, 1998, when UMass played its last NCAA tournament game. That day, Saint Louis dropped the Minutemen 51-46 in the first round of the South Regional in Atlanta. Five trips to the second-tier National Invitation Tournament have followed, but nothing to truly fire the imagination of the UMass fanbase until Sunday.

Six Atlantic 10 teams made the NCAA tournament, as many had predicted. Saint Louis and Virginia Commonwealth each drew No. 5 seeds, while Saint Joseph’s, which beat VCU Sunday to win the A-10 tournament title, pulled a No. 10 seed. On Saturday, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski made some comments viewed as disparaging toward the A-10, stating that the conference’s at-large teams would never fare successfully in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Curiously, if UMass and Duke each win Friday, they’d play each other Sunday in the third round — only some 21 miles away from Duke’s Durham campus.

“I think (the A-10) fared great. The overall body of work, the RPIs, who we’ve beaten in the out-of-conference — lends to why it was so tough and a daunting task to win in the conference, especially on the road,” said Kellogg. “Listen, coaches are out there fighting for their leagues. I’m not a guy that’s really into that, but I speak for our conference. I think our league has been as competitive, maybe more so, than a lot of teams from the so-called Big Six conferences.”

One of Kellogg’s contemporaries, Lou Roe, also appreciated the moment and the obvious throwback to the program’s glory days of the 1990s. A UMass great with over 1,900 career points and now a special assistant on Kellogg’s staff, Roe, recently retired from playing abroad for nearly two decades, spoke of the Minutemen’s reward of an NCAA invitation.

“Seeing the sense of urgency and these guys’ hunger to get back and do the very best they could, their commitment toward the season and one another was impeccable,” said Roe. “Our goal was to do something special. We didn’t know how many games we’d win, we didn’t know if we’d make it to the NCAA tournament, but their clear mission was to do everything they could. And that’s what they’ve done.”

The Minutemen have never faced Iowa, but have dropped all three meetings with Tennessee, the most recent coming early last season. The Volunteers beat UMass 83-69 in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament Nov. 18, 2012.

Tourney notes: Four games will be played in the Raleigh “pod” Friday, two in the East Regional and two in the Midwest. Virginia, the East’s top seed, faces No. 16 Coastal Carolina, and East No. 8 Memphis takes on No. 9 George Washington, from the Atlantic 10. GW beat UMass 85-77 in the A-10 tournament quarterfinals Friday night, then lost to VCU in Saturday’s semifinal. ... The two Midwest Regional teams that win both Friday and Sunday in Raleigh will move on to the “Sweet 16” in Indianapolis March 28.

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