Nov. 23, 1998.
The great Bill Clinton was in his second term as President of the United States, Justin Bieber was four years old, and NHL legend Wayne Gretzky was in the final year of his illustrious career.
This date also represents the last time the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team was ranked in the Top 25 of the Associated Press College Basketball poll. Fifteen years and two days later, UMass makes its triumphant return to the Top 25 of the AP poll following its 6-0 start—including the Charleston Classic title, which the Minutemen won Sunday night.
UMass, which entered the AP poll Monday at No. 24, has already collected wins over two ACC teams (Clemson, Boston College), an SEC team (LSU), a Big Ten team (Nebraska) and a Top-25 team (New Mexico) just six games into its 2013-14 campaign.
According to www.live-rpi.com, the Minutemen currently own the No. 1 RPI in the nation and their strength of schedule is rated fifth among all Division I squads, ahead of heavyweights such as Kansas and Michigan State.
The team’s success so far this season can be attributed to the balance of its starting unit. Led by the continued emergence of big man Cady Lalanne, UMass boasts a starting lineup in which every player is averaging over 10 points per game.
Senior forwards Raphiael Putney and Sampson Carter are playing their best basketball since they arrived in Amherst, Mass., five seasons ago. Putney scored a season-high 18 points in UMass’ key win over No. 19 New Mexico, and the Woodbridge, Va. native is averaging 11.5 points and 5.3 rebounds a game.
Carter has been the most pleasant surprise this season. The fifth-year senior is the team’s third leading scorer with 13.5 PPG while also contributing 4.8 RPG.
Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon struggled with his shot in the first two games of the season, but he has settled in nicely since then, averaging 11.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG and 2.2 APG.
The two players most responsible for UMass' first national ranking in a decade and a half are Lalanne and star guard Chaz Williams, both who have already been honored with Atlantic 10 Player of the Week accolades.
Williams, a 2013-14 preseason Atlantic 10 All-Conference First Team selection, has played at his typically high level.
Through six contests, the redshirt senior is averaging 16.0 points and 6.2 assists per game. The 5’9’’ spark plug is also grabbing 3.0 RPG and hitting 42.3 percent of his three-point shots, all while logging a team-high 33.7 minutes a contest.
Lalanne, who many thought would continue to emerge this season as a dominant low-post player, has exceeded even those lofty expectations.
The 6’10’’, 250-pound center spent a lot of time this offseason refining his post moves with assistant coach and Minutemen great Lou Roe, and building muscle with the help of strength and conditioning coach “Big” Rich Hogans.
Lalanne’s offseason efforts have paid off, as he is UMass’ leading scorer at 17.8 PPG and leading rebounder with 11.3 per contest. Possibly the most promising aspect of Lalanne’s newfound dominance is his offensive rebounding ability. More than half of his 11.3 rebounds per game are earned on the offensive glass, and he is currently one of three players in all of Division I averaging at least six offensive boards per game.
UMass has already passed some of its toughest tests this season, but the Minutemen still have plenty of resume-building opportunities remaining in their nonconference slate. A matchup with high-scoring BYU looms on Dec. 7 in Springfield, Mass., then UMass is set to take on Florida State two weeks later in Sunrise, Fla. The Minutemen also host Providence on Dec. 28 in their last marquee nonconference contest.
With two legitimate stars in Lalanne and Williams, along with a solid supporting cast, it is reasonable to assume that UMass will remain in the national picture all season.