BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Derek Kellogg can sniff it. He's finally getting to that point of achievement that he has craved since he was first handed the reigns at his alma mater almost five years ago.
Years one and two brought 12 wins apiece. The third season was a .500 campaign. Last year finished with 25 wins and a good run in the NIT.
But now UMass is a 21-10 team with an NCAA tournament profile that took a kind boost on Friday by way of a 79-74 victory over longtime rival Temple. How fitting. While Syracuse and Georgetown were playing out their ultimate game as conference counterparts in Manhattan, Temple and Massachusetts were in Brooklyn, at Barclays Center, the two programs with similar shades of maroon putting an appropriate bow on another league clash that's coming to an end due to realignment.
It was a great game. Temple looked like it had control a few times. But the UMass effort, timely 3-point shooting and advantage on the glass kept the Owls from stealing back the lead in the final minutes. It was hard not to think about where all the figures from this rivalry in years past were and what they were doing. Where were they watching? The gravity of the game wasn't lost on Kellogg, who played in it in the '90s.
"It's what we've come to expect out of the UMass-Temple games," Kellogg said. "I love the way Temple, even in defeat, handles it with such class. I wish them the best of luck in the NCAA tournament."
For the second straight season, Kellogg got the best of Fran Dunphy's Owls in the A-10 quarterfinals. And now our Jerry Palm has put UMass in the field, swapping the Owls in and taking Kentucky out after John Calipari's Wildcats dropped an awful one to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament.
So, how about this for irony. You can easily make the case that Derek Kellogg has a better chance to make the NCAA tournament this year than his mentor and former coach, John Calipari. No one would've figured or taken that bet as recently as a month ago, let alone at the start of the season.
I remember talking to Kellogg back at A-10 media day in mid-October. He joked about how stressed he was even looking at the preseason rankings inside the league. Nevertheless, UMass tread water with a 9-7 record, earned small-but-important wins outside the conference against Harvard, Providence and Ohio. Then, in league play, beat La Salle and Xavier on the road.
No win was as important or big this year as what transpired Friday night, though. That was evident on Kellogg's face, too. He was a smiling man. His team kept the best player in the Atlantic 10, Khaliff Wyatt, to 4-of-19 shooting. He didn't talk much about his team's prospects now, given VCU awaits and Shaka Smart's team manhandled Massachusetts by 20 a month ago.
"I leave that up to the powers-that-be that make that decision," Kellogg said. "I'm really just worried about getting ready for VCU and not having as much time to prepare."
I don't think UMass is in. The wins are OK, but the punctuation would be putting down VCU. That would be no-bones-about-it. UMass would be in the A-10 title game and earn a much-needed, third top-50 win. Temple on Friday night only amounted to victory No. 2 inside the top 50.
Temple, for the record, is still safely in according to Palm (who has them at an 11). And to me, as well. The A-10 is on pace to have a solid year after. The conference could get Butler, VCU, Saint Louis, Temple and UMass in. Five bids. It hasn't earned so many invites to the Big Dance in more than a decade.
"I can't sit here and say I'm confident," Fran Dunphy said after the loss. The man is more measured than pessimistic. I'd consider a Temple snub one of the bigger oversights by the Selection Committee in the past five years.
Now the A-10 turns to Saturday, its semifinals a good arrangement, a representation of what this league is and what it's losing. Saint Louis-Butler will be an absolute brawl. VCU-UMass should get the spectators' necks nice and loose. If Kellogg's team wins, there is no doubt: UMass will be in and be back in full as a program.
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