Make no mistake about it, the UMass men’s basketball program was dormant when Chaz Williams arrived in the summer of 2011. Before Chaz hit the floor, the Minutemen had not achieved a winning record in three years, and were still searching for their first NCAA tourney birth since 1998. Head coach Derek Kellogg almost lost his chance to coach Williams with many calling for the Massachusetts native to be fired after losing the last four games of the 2010-2011 season.
But things turned around in Amherst. UMass went 70-39 in three seasons with Chaz at point guard. The Minutemen immediately turned 15-15 into 25-12, including a surprising run to the NIT Final Four. And most importantly, a 16-year NCAA tourney drought finally came to an end last March.
Heading into the current season, UMass fans knew that reaching the NCAA tournament again was not going to be easy. After one month of play, the Minutemen are 5-4 with two tough games still on their non-conference plate. A return to the tournament already appears unlikely. But I’m here to tell you not to blame this season’s results on Chaz Williams’ graduation.
1. UMass lost more than just Chaz.
It also graduated seniors Raphiael Putney and Sampson Carter. Even though both players started for three seasons each, Putney and Carter were never household names. But if you could somehow count them as one player, Putney and Carter were about as valuable, if not, more valuable than Chaz Williams.
The three seniors teamed up for 46% of UMass points. At programs not named Kentucky, losing half of your offense is a big deal. Putney and Carter were solid on the boards. Putney was the Minutemen’s second best rebounder (5.4 rpg) and Carter was fourth (4.8 rpg). Thanks to this duo, last season’s Minutemen had four strong rebounders. This season, Cady Lalanne and Maxie Esho basically have to do everything themselves. Reaching the NCAA tournament with only two legitimate big men is tough without a highly skilled backcourt. Not to mention, Putney and Carter were matchup nightmares. Both players were 3-point threats, and both were 6-foot-9. 6-foot-freaking-9! Like with rebounding, UMass’s core of long-range shooters was reduced from four guys to two. Putney-Carter (come on, they’re pretty much one guy) also ran the floor better than most big men, allowing UMass to press on defense, and play at a frenetic pace offensively.
2. Assists are overrated, and turnovers are overlooked
As a disclaimer, when it comes to sports I’m a pretty big advanced metrics guy. I think the advances Billy Beanes and Brad Stevens (A-10 alumnus) have added to their sports are really cool. With that said, assists are the most overrated statistic in basketball. Assists don’t put the ball in the hoop. Assists don’t take the ball away from the other team. Assists OCCASIONALLY create good shot opportunities.
Chaz Williams compiled 703 assists in 103 games at UMass, finishing in the top-10 in the nation all three seasons. That’s great and all, but what the Minutemen really miss is his ability to score, a category he also led his team in three years in a row. When UMass needed a bucket, Chaz could (but not always) beat his defender to the hoop and give it to them. Nine games into the season, UMass’s offense looks completely out-of-whack. But even with Chaz Williams, it looked out of sync more often than not.
Which leads me to “Part B” of this section – Chaz turned the ball over. A lot.
In fact, Williams finished 12th and 14th nationally in turnovers while in Amherst. To be fair, Chaz wasn’t the only Minuteman who thought the basketball was a hot potato the last three years. Per KenPom, UMass’s uptempo, aggressive offense was the 12th fastest in the nation last year, and is 9th so far this year (more advanced metrics, sorry). But still, the Minutemen turned the ball over more than most NCAA tournament caliber teams. And Chaz Williams was not innocent.
3. 2014-2015 presents a MUCH tougher schedule
Last year, UMass had an extremely favorable schedule on its path to a 24-9 record. What exactly does that mean?
In the A-10, UMass did not have to travel to Saint Louis or VCU, who finished 1-2 in conference play. The best team UMass played twice was 4-seed St. Joe’s, splitting the season series. Furthermore, UMass also had home-and-homes with weak Rhode Island and George Mason teams.
In non-conference play, UMass is paying for the favorable matchups of the last couple seasons. Instead of hosting LSU (2-point win), they traveled to Baton Rouge (22-point loss). Instead of hosting Providence (2-point win), the Bay Staters will hit the road (December 20th). Instead of hosting BYU (9-point win), UMass will fly to Provo (December 23rd). Not to mention having to play at Harvard in Cambridge (2-point loss), whom the Minutemen hosted, and beat, in 2012-2013, or a solid Notre Dame team (13-point loss) on a neutral floor.
Not making any excuses for the fighting Derek Kelloggs, but even last year’s team would have had difficulty surviving the current non-conference slate.
So far, the A-10 does not look to be anywhere as deep as last year. VCU, Dayton, and GW have been solid, but all three squads are struggling to establish themselves as a favorite. With such a huge, unpredictable middle class, perhaps UMass will come out on the top half of the conference. Maybe they will pull off upsets at Providence and BYU.
But I am not betting on it. Chaz Williams ain’t taking the floor today against Canisius. Neither are Putney and Carter. But as talented as he was, the 2014-2015 UMass campaign should not be titled “Life After Chaz”. It’s more complicated than that.