The Celtics were in full-fledged rebuilding mode as the building formerly known as the FleetCenter opened its doors in 1995, and Boston was in desperate need for an entertaining and successful brand of basketball.
John Calipari’s UMass Minutemen played their home games an hour and 45 minutes away from the Hub in Amherst, Mass., but there was great buzz in the city that year regarding the newly branded “Commonwealth Classic,” pitting the budding Minutemen against Big East stalwart Boston College. UMass, fresh off an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA tournament months prior, defeated the Eagles, 65-57, in front of a sell-out crowd at the “new Garden” and, somewhat surprisingly, Boston’s collective sports attention slowly but surely turned to the “Refuse to Lose” Minutemen as March 1996 approached.
UMass made it all the way to the Final Four in the Meadowlands that season, due to the efforts of revered players like Marcus Camby, Edgar Padilla, Carmelo Travieso and Donta Bright. But the Massachusetts program soon-after fell on hard times when Calipari fled to the NBA and the NCAA came down hard on the program due to the “illegal acceptance of gifts” by Camby.
Consider the penance served.
UMass (24-8) will play its first NCAA tournament game in a mere 5,852 days this Friday (2:45 p.m., CBS) against either Iowa or Tennessee. Head coach Derek Kellogg, who was a star point guard under Calipari in the early ’90s, has steadily built the program back up since taking the reigns in 2008. In Kellogg’s first three seasons on the UMass bench, the Minutemen went 39-53. In the past three seasons, UMass has gone an impressive 70-32.
“That was an emotional, great feeling to see UMass pop up on the screen,” Kellogg told reporters on Selection Sunday. “It’s just a lot of hard work and dedication from our staff and families. We got some indication today. It’s been an emotional time, and we’re excited to be where we are.”
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UMass is led by senior guard Chaz Williams, who is averaging 15.8 points and 7.0 assists per game. Big man Cady Lalanne (11.4 ppg) and forward Sampson Carter (10.5 ppg) are the two other double-digit scorers for the boys from the province of the Mass Pike.
Now, it’s highly unlikely that the Minutemen will regain anything close to the popularity they had in Massachusetts in the mid-1990s anytime soon, due mainly to Boston’s four major pro sports teams having enjoyed so much success in the past 10-plus years and that UMass’ ultimate ceiling as a No. 6-seed in this year’s tourney seems to be a Sweet Sixteen berth.
Still, as March Madness tips off this week, UMass alums and fans in and around the Hub will not only refuse to lose, but will also refuse to be ignored. The basketball buzz emanating from Amherst is back.
Follow Metro Boston sports editor Matt Burke on Twitter @BurkeMetroBOS