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Youth, verve putting UMass back on the map

By Jeff Wagenheim
Globe Correspondent / March 6, 2012
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AMHERST - You might not have motored out on the Mass. Pike this season to see a game, or even watched any of the occasional regional telecasts on cable. But if you’re a “SportsCenter’’ regular, you’ve caught a few glimpses of University of Massachusetts basketball.

Twice within the last couple months, the show’s “Top 10’’ segment has featured highlight-reel plays by UMass sophomore Raphiael Putney. You might recall them. They were dunks. True, practically every “Top 10’’ hoops play is a dunk. But these were memorable.

That’s especially so for the clip that was ranked No. 3 Feb. 8, which came midway through the first half of a game at the Mullins Center against St. Bonaventure. The Minutemen were on a fast break when point guard Chaz Williams, despite having not reached midcourt, launched the ball toward the basket. Putney, running the court with a gazelle’s urgent gait, took off in midstride, caught the ball next to the rim, and slammed it. The crowd exploded.

“I loved it,’’ said coach Derek Kellogg, who in his fourth year has his first 20-win season - and counting, as the Minutemen (20-10, 9-7 Atlantic 10) prepare to host Duquesne (16-14, 7-9) tonight in the first round of the conference tournament. “Those are the type of plays that excite the fans, and they’re also game-changing plays. I think that was even more the case with the dunk against Saint Joe’s, when we were down 12 and needed something to wake us up.’’

The coach was referring to the No. 8 play in the “Top 10’’ on the Jan. 14 “SportsCenter.’’ UMass had fallen behind Saint Joseph’s, 20-3, and was just beginning to show some life by scoring 5 straight points. Then Putney struck on the fast break, as Williams found him with a sweet between-the-legs bounce pass and the 6-foot-9-inch highlight reel soared over a defender and slammed the ball home to make it a 10-point game. The Minutemen would have the lead by halftime, and they won, 71-62.

“That was one of the top plays a UMass player has made, not just this year but ever,’’ Kellogg said. Because it lit a spark and his team won? That’s part of it, the coach acknowledged, but he’s thinking more of the big picture.

“I haven’t seen those kinds of dunks around here in a long, long time,’’ said Kellogg, who was a Minuteman point guard during four A-10 championship seasons from 1992-95. “Plays like that dunk can be program changers. My vision for this team is to be running and throwing alley-oop passes and making incredibly athletic dunks. We’re starting to be that team. We’re making plays the student section goes crazy over. And we’re starting to get some national attention.’’

A large part of the UMass program’s attention-grabbing enhancement can be attributed to Putney and fellow sophomore starters Williams and Jesse Morgan. The latter has elevated his game at shooting guard, most recently in Saturday’s regular-season finale, when he put up a career-high 25 points against Rhode Island on 9-of-9 shooting, including 6 of 6 from the 3-point arc.

“When he’s knocking down his 3-pointers and getting into the lane and making plays, we’re a dangerous team,’’ said Kellogg. “And Jesse’s also become a very good defender. We put him on the other team’s best player on occasion, and he’s locked those guys down.’’

As for Williams, the 5-9 transfer from Hofstra is the engine that makes the Minutemen go. The team’s leading scorer (16.2 points per game) and the A-10’s leading assist man (6.4), he was named first-team all-conference Monday, the first UMass player so honored since Gary Forbes (now with the Toronto Raptors) was the A-10 player of the year in 2007-08.

“The thing about this kid is, he just loves to play basketball,’’ said Kellogg. “He’s always in the gym working on making himself better and making his teammates better, too. Chaz has put the team on his back at times with his scoring, and other times he’s done little things to get his teammates recognized. He’s a competitor with that New York City toughness. And he gets how I want the team to play.’’

That brings the story full circle back to Putney, whom Kellogg recognized as the prototype athlete for his preferred up-tempo style the first time the coach spotted the then-high school player four years ago at the Reebok All-American basketball camp in Philadelphia. “His dexterity and the way he moved, for a player of his length, it really intrigued me with how I wanted to play as a coach,’’ said Kellogg. “He looked like a guy who was just scratching the surface of what he could be.’’

After a redshirt year, Putney’s role increased gradually as his freshman season wore on. “Last year was kind of rough, because I didn’t know college basketball,’’ said Putney, who averaged 4.4 points and 3.0 rebounds. “But this year I’ve taken on a bigger role, and I like being a guy the team goes to when we need a bucket. I’ve gotten better over time. I’ve gotten comfortable.’’

And made defenses uncomfortable.

Putney, a 21-year-old out of Woodbridge, Va., is the only Minuteman other than Williams with a scoring average in double figures (10.2), getting his points everywhere from exhilarating dunks to teardrop 3-pointers. He’s too long for most perimeter defenders to bother, too quick for most bigs to stay with.

“When he’s in the right frame of mind to take over games and play the way we need him to, he’s a really tough cover,’’ said Kellogg.

But the coach sees Putney’s value extending well beyond the offensive end of the court. After all, if Williams is the engine that drives this team, what fuels that fast-break engine are the plays that put the ball in the point guard’s hands. And Putney leads the Minutemen in both blocked shots (44) and defensive rebounds (137).

“When he does what I call the grunt-man stuff - the defensive rebounds, the shot blocks, the dives for loose balls - we’re a much more polished team,’’ said Kellogg. “Raphiael does the little things, things that a lot of kids don’t understand are the important things. He’s a complete player - but one who still has a big upside.’’

As such, Putney is a microcosm of this UMass team of three sophomore starters and a couple of freshmen (Cady Lalanne and Maxie Esho) who’ve shown flashes of what Putney sporadically put on display last year. “We have a program now,’’ said Kellogg. “The kids are in the gym working, they have a brotherhood, a bond, and now there are older guys who’ve been here with this coaching staff and can show the younger ones how we play basketball at UMass. You want to get to the point where when a senior leaves, the next kid just comes in and takes his spot.’’

“It’s a transition. We’ve had some rough times since I’ve been here,’’ said Kellogg, who won 12, 12, and 15 games in his first three seasons. “Everything hasn’t gone the way I planned or how I would have liked. But now this is fun. We have 20 wins, we have a chance in the conference tournament, and hopefully some postseason play. We’ve done it with an exciting style, with a little bit of flair. And that’s why the crowds have come back the way they have.’’

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