Derek Kellogg remembers his first Final Four experience.
As an assistant coach at Memphis in 2008, he helped the Tigers reach the NCAA tournament's Final Four. With star point guard Derrick Rose running the show, that team made the national championship game, but lost to Kansas in overtime.
Now, four years later, as the head coach for Massachusetts, Kellogg is playing in another Final Four, but it's in the National Invitation Tournament. The Minutemen take on Stanford tonight at Madison Square Garden in one of the semifinals.
While there are undoubtedly many differences between the 2008 Memphis squad and this year's UMass team, Kellogg said there is one glaring similarity that has rung true with both teams.
"The biggest similarity is the tightness of the team, the kind of brotherhood that these guys have," Kellogg said. "They really enjoy being around each other, practices are fun and energetic even this late in the season, and I thought the year at Memphis when we went to the Final Four, it was very similar in that the guys have a little edge, there was a mission and they enjoyed each other's company."
To get to MSG, the Minutemen (25-11) had to win three consecutive road games – a task not at all easy considering the team's road's struggles this season – but they got the job done in impressive fashion against all NCAA tournament caliber teams.
First, UMass traveled to Mississippi State, defeating the Bulldogs 101-96 in double overtime. Then, the Minutemen went to New Jersey to beat the top seed in their bracket in Seton Hall before finally going on the road to Drexel, where UMass overcame a 17-point second half deficit to advance to New York City.
"They wanted to keep playing, they believed that it could happen and they really stuck together as a team," Kellogg said. "All of the hard work that they put in throughout the year and even over the summer is starting to pay off now in the type of condition we're in."
Standing in the Minutemen's way of a championship game berth is the Cardinal, who has had the luxury of playing in all home games to advance to the semifinals, beating Cleveland State, Illinois State and Nevada.
Although they finished seventh in a down year for the Pac-12, Kellogg still believes that they are a worthy opponent and has been impressed watching them on tape.
"They've really gotten better as the season's gone on," Kellogg said. "They have a lot of young guys that are continuing to improve and I think they've finally started to put it all together, kind of like we have, as the postseason has begun."
Like UMass, Stanford's roster is filled with underclassmen, including freshman guard Chasson Randle, who leads the team in scoring at 13.9 points per game and in 3-point field goal percentage at 43.8 percent.
Inside, the Cardinal boasts Josh Owens, who averages 11.7 points and 5.7 boards per game, and the Minutemen will also have to be careful to not let sophomore guard Aaron Bright get hot from outside. He averages 11.6 points per game by virtue of his 43.3 shooting percentage from 3.
"Their guard play is very good and they're young," Kellogg said. "They have a front line like a lot of Pac-12 teams with good size and can beat you on the boards with good athletes. It's going to be a tough contest for us where we can't let them beat us on the boards and get off a lot of 3-pointers."
Game time for tonight's semifinal is scheduled for 7 p.m., which will be televised on ESPN2 from Madison Square Garden. The winner will play Washington or Minnesota in Thursday's championship.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MDC_Hewitt and @steve_hewitt.