My head understands why the University of Massachusetts (and the rest of the Atlantic-14, sans Xavier) is below the Red Line, but when you're used to the low-income housing of the NEC, America East, the MAAC, and the Ivy League (yeah, I see the irony there, too, don't worry), the Mullins Center is one of the houses in the neighborhood that stands out.
I know UConn is nearby, and other places with lavish residences like Providence are around, but they're not going to talk to us here at mid-majority, are they? Well, except to call us scum, wanna-bes, I've heard worse. Kids can be so cruel.
It's OK, we're used to it.
And UMass, despite having a veritable mansion, invited me in on Saturday to check out a conference battle with St. Joseph's, so who am I to turn down the offer?
Plus, it allowed me to make my semi-annual trip to the nearby Hall of Fame, which was sadly devoid of much use for our plight. There was former Long Island coach Clair Bee, but was there a mid-majority in the 1930s?
Tony Hinkle makes an appearance, but there was little else. Hopefully, when it doesn't end in a loss, the Hall will take quick note. I did, though, get to show off my outside game against random pre-teens, about my level.
A read of James Naismith's original 13 rules of basketball is also interesting, with things like: "7. If either side makes three consecutive fouls, it shall count a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the mean time making a foul)." Don't know what the Big East would make of that one.
The Hall is also surrounded by some nice eateries, but upon entry to the Mullins Center and seeing clam chowder on the menu, I had to partake, even if it took a full two media time outs to cool off to a tolerable level. So, a week after I was at a facility with no concessions at all, I'm eating clam chowder? Man, I could learn to live like this.
My memory is good, but it gets warped with time. As the banners overhead remind me, the only live Final Four I've ever attended was in 1996 and featured John Calipari and UMass, who lost to Rick Pitino and Kentucky in the national semifinal. That's pretty much ignored when we talk about mid-majors and the Promised Land, but you can see why. You can dislike Calipari as much as you want (and I do, believe me, me and John Chaney), but starting in 1992 (making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in three decades), UMass was a 3, 3, 2, 2, and finally a 1 seed, respectively, from 1992-1996, culminating in the Final Four run.
I'm sure they would have qualified for a Red Line exemption by then.
Bruiser Flint (currently having a fine season at Drexel) got the Minutemen to the tournament the next two seasons, but Calipari - as he's done elsewhere - left the cupboard fairly bare, and UMass has not been called on Selection Sunday since. That's where the memory fails, that was 14 long years ago. The much-hyped UMass-UConn showdowns in the Calipari Era are long defunct.
The Minutemen have had a losing conference record in each of current coach Derek Kellogg's three seasons (Kellogg might have been one of the players Chaney was so angry about in that rant, as he was on that team), but there are signs of life this season.
Well, there weren't many early in Saturday's game, as St. Joe's - also having a bit of a resurgence after an abysmal 2010-11 campaign - led 20-3 (with a 17-0 run) seven minutes into the game.
But the Minutemen, led by shooter Raphiel Putney, scored the next 13 points to get back into the game. Putney, who is listed at 6-foot-9, 185 pounds, and looks even skinnier that, had a steal and layup to give UMass a 30-29 lead late in the first half. UMass led by one at the intermission, and I thought about more clam chowder, or some ice cream, or some Subway (also offered), but I used the interlude to seek out one of my favorite mascots in all of sports, the St. Joseph's Hawk.
Alas, the Hawk was too busy schmoozing with the dignitaries that made the trip up from Philadelphia to agree to an impromptu photo. It was quite amazing to see the Hawk shake hands and keep the other hand flapping. I've had a soft spot for the Hawk even since his famous brawl at Rhode Island in 1998. But he does leave himself open for ribbing from opposing student bodies.
In the houses I'm used to seeing hoops in, it doesn't take long to go from one end to the other, but it took most of halftime to make my way around and back, so maybe someday I'll have to check out at the Hawk at his (much smaller) house.
UMass turned up the defensive pressure in the second half, and St. Joseph's was exposed as a team that really couldn't take care of the ball, at least in this game. Leading scorer Langston Galloway was harassed into just eight points (foul trouble didn't help), and Phil Martelli's bunch, while in it for most of the contest (they came in with a solid 12-5 record with some quality wins), never looked comfortable on offense. Several times the shot clock ran down near zero, UMass had 14 points off turnovers after halftime, and stayed unbeaten at home with a 71-62 win.
The most entertaining player I've seen this season is UMass sophomore Chazz Williams. The Hofstra transfer is the Minutemen's leading scorer although he's just 5-foot-9. He makes mistakes, but he does it energetically, always attacking, always running at people, always doing something. He finished with a game-high 22 points and seven assists, and got a standing ovation from me as UMass ran out the clock (I can do that, right?)
Next weekend, it's back to the small places where I feel more at home, the gyms with the modest surroundings, smaller scoreboards, and fewer laser-light shows for pregame introductions.
But it was sure swell of the nice people at the Mullins Center to invite me in for a day and not treat me like some kind of delinquent the way people above the Red Line do. Even as I took one last look around to ogle UMass' vast home, there were players signing autographs, and the band - which had been there since the beginning of the women's game five hours earlier, played on.
I just hope they didn't talk about me behind my back when I left.
Even if they did, I can be comforted by the first thing I saw when entering the Hall down the street in Springfield. You tell 'em, Wilt:
at MASSACHUSETTS 71, SAINT JOSEPH'S 62 01/14/2012
SAINT JOSEPH'S 12-6 (2-2) -- C. Jones 2-12 0-0 4; H. Kanacevic 5-13 0-0 11; C. Aiken 4-9 0-0 10; L. Galloway 3-8 1-1 8; R. Roberts 7-7 2-4 16; D. Quarles 2-7 0-0 5; C. Wilson 0-0 2-2 2; P. Ndao 2-3 1-1 6; E. Maschmeyer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-59 6-8 62. MASSACHUSETTS 14-4 (3-1) -- R. Putney 6-9 1-2 17; C. Williams 5-14 10-10 22; S. Carter 3-5 2-2 8; J. Morgan 2-7 0-0 6; F. Riley 2-9 0-0 5; T. Vinson 4-10 1-2 11; J. Farrell 0-4 0-0 0; M. Esho 1-3 0-0 2; A. McCarthy 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-61 14-16 71.
Three-point goals: SJU 6-23 (C. Jones 0-5; H. Kanacevic 1-4; C. Aiken 2-6; L. Galloway 1-3; D. Quarles 1-3; P. Ndao 1-2), MASS 11-27 (J. Farrell 0-2; R. Putney 4-6; F. Riley 1-6; T. Vinson 2-5; C. Williams 2-5; J. Morgan 2-3); Rebounds: SJU 33 (C. Aiken 10), MASS 38 (S. Carter 10); Assists: SJU 15 (C. Jones 5), MASS 16 (C. Williams 7); Total Fouls -- SJU 14, MASS 14; Fouled Out: SJU-L. Galloway; MASS-None.