s St. Bonaventure's junior point guard Ahmad Smith brought the ball down the Reilly Center hardwood on Wednesday night against the Minutemen, you could literally feel the school's pulse.
A sea of gold and brown lined the side of the court, and with every possession there was excitement. When Rashaun Freeman,UMass' premier big man, would turn the ball over, slow, monotonous shouts of "Rashaun" would ring well into the next possession. Anytime head coach Steve Lappas would step on the floor, hands would go up in unison, grasping for a technical foul.
The Minutemen looked frazzled. The students sitting closest to the UMass bench started yelling, "Big Deli? Big Smelly!" towards freshman center Jeff Salovski. Salovski looked over to teammate Stephane Lasme, mouthed, "Big Smelly?" and shook his head.
The home team was feeding off it. They were overmatched and undermanned against this team from Massachusetts, yet were able to keep it close. The Bonnies brought the Minutemen to two overtimes, but eventually folded, sucking the life out of the 3,581 Reilly Rowdies who had been relentless for almost three hours.
I was stunned to hear St. Bonaventure head coach Anthony Solomon say that he gave the crowd a "B" after the game. It was the most intense college crowd I had seen outside of Amherst, yet he was upset that there were empty seats.
Walking into this environment, very few would guess that this crowd was pulling for a team that was merely 1-15. Even as their team walked off the court, the students lined the exit and clapped for the effort. Then they all filed out and started talking about the next game.
In college athletics, I think that's something called loyalty.
The center of the court was flooded, and for the first time in years, it looked like UMass was truly a basketball school.
Yet, only a few weeks later, the Mullins Center was silent. The hangover from the UConn win slowly started to subside, and winter session took a large bite out of the student section. The crowds began to mirror those of the past few years, when this team was trying to rebuild.
Now the Minutemen are 10-7, tied for third place in the Atlantic 10 and are poised for its first postseason run in recent memory. This, plus the fact that school is back in session, makes tomorrow's game against A-10 rival Richmond very interesting.
At St. Bonaventure, a 10-7 team would mean a sold out crowd every night, especially for conference games. There would be talk of the NIT and the distant possibility of the coveted NCAA tournament. It would look like a real college basketball environment; there would be that special energy in the air that is the very essence of home court advantage.
But what could happen tomorrow?
It seems people have gotten too caught up in the lore of UMass basketball and don't want to care if it's bad. There is the thought that the mid-90s are the benchmark, and any middle ground isn't worth watching.
This ideal is puzzling to me because, as I've watched sports fans interact around this school for four years, the one thing I've noticed is the degree of passion.
This university is flooded with Boston and New York fans who know what it's like to watch a team suffer. Yet, as they come into UMass, they lose interest in their college's team before they can even get interested.
Now, the Minutemen have 10 games left, five of which are at home, and they are pushing hard to take this team to the next level.
Maybe it's time to check them out.