MHERST -- It was a roller coaster offseason for the UMass basketball team. Coming off the high of reaching the NIT title game, the Minutemen quickly discovered the downside to their success.
Third-year coach Travis Ford was wooed by a number of programs, and, after agreeing to a contract extension through the 2014-15 season on April 10, he bolted for Oklahoma State less than a week later.
With the program returning to national prominence, UMass turned to a native son to take over. Derek Kellogg, a Springfield native who played point guard for John Calipari during the Minutemen’s glory days in the 1990s, was named the new coach on April 23 after serving as an assistant on Calipari’s Memphis staff for the past eight years.
While this is the 35-year-old’s first head coaching gig, Kellogg believes he is more than ready to lead the Minutemen this season, which opens tonight against Arkansas-Monticello in the 2K Sports Challenge.
“It’s a stage at my life where I’m totally at ease with myself as a coach,” Kellogg said. “I feel like this is a great opportunity ...I feel like I’m ready to take this program to the next level.”
Here are five questions facing Kellogg and the Minutemen:
1. How will the team adjust to a new offense?
The Minutemen excelled in Ford’s fast-paced offense last season, scoring 81.5 points per game, the eighth best average in the country. Kellogg won’t scrap that aggressive approach, but his dribble-drive motion system is different than Ford’s free-wheeling style.
The use of DDM is expanding rapidly throughout basketball, and Kellogg has the offense’s architect, Vance Walberg, on board as an assistant. Making the adjustment easier is an experienced backcourt, led by senior point guard Chris Lowe.
“It’s different because with coach Ford you were just out there going,” Lowe said. “With this, everything is about timing. They’re both great systems, but now we’re looking forward to playing in the dribble-drive motion system.”
2. Will Chris Lowe become one of the best point guards in the country?
A four-year starter, Lowe has steadily improved each season. As a junior, Lowe led the Atlantic 10 with 6.3 assists per game and also proved to be a capable finisher in transition, averaging 11.8 points per game.
Lowe received some national recognition last season, but he was often placed one level below the country’s top-tier point guards. Lowe is determined to prove that he belongs in the discussion with the elite floor generals.
“I’m not going to change my game just to be on top,” Lowe said. “I’m just going to be myself -- make my teammates better, score when I have to score and be a leader. I’m just going to be Chris Lowe and go out there and dominate and show everybody why I am one of the best point guards in the country.”
3. Is Ricky Harris ready to be the No. 1 option?
Harris enjoyed a breakout sophomore year, earning the A-10’s Most Improved Player award after increasing his scoring average from 4.5 to 18.2 points per game. That jump in production was largely due to an increase in playing time, but Harris also benefited from playing alongside A-10 Player of the Year Gary Forbes, the team’s unquestioned No. 1 option.
With Forbes now playing in the NBA Development League, Harris will shift from a complementary role to the main weapon on offense.
“It’s always difficult when you go from being a role player and a guy who put up some points to now a guy that is a focal point of the other team,” Kellogg said. “I continue to preach to him, ‘Don’t worry so much about being that focal point and scoring baskets. Do everything else and then the scoring and you being our No. 1 option will come to fruition.’ ”
4. Who will do the rebounding?
While Lowe and Harris give the Minutemen an experienced and talented backcourt, there are huge holes to fill on the frontline due to the graduation of Forbes, Etienne Brower and Dante Milligan, the team’s three leading rebounders last season.
UMass will need to rebound by committee this season, with seniors Tony Gaffney and Luke Bonner, who played supporting roles a year ago, the most obvious candidates to pick up the slack on the boards.
“All five people have to rebound,” Harris said. “Last year, we just focused on Gary, Etienne and Dante grabbing them. This year, we have to get in there and fight and scrap with the best of them. Like coach Kellogg stresses, all five of us have to go to the glass hard.”
5. Can they take the next step and reach the NCAA tournament?
UMass made great strides under Ford, re-establishing itself as a top program in the A-10 while making NIT runs in each of the past two seasons. But Ford was never able to get the team to its ultimate goal: an NCAA tournament appearance.
Kellogg has plenty of experience in that department. As a player, he was a member of four tourney teams, including a run to the Elite Eight his senior season. As an assistant, Kellogg was on the bench as Memphis established itself as a perennial national championship contender, culminating in an appearance in the title game last year.
“We’re making it a concerted effort to get our guys to play with a passion and intensity that you need to get into the NCAA tournament and play at that next level,” Kellogg said. “It’s a constant, daily thing where you’re trying to get better and continue to improve.”