To say Massachusetts basketball had less than a stellar history would be to understate the case. When the school went searching for a new coach following the 1988 season, it had been 26 years since they’d even made the NCAA Tournament. The man they hired to turn it around was John Calipari and with his first opportunity at a head coaching job, Calipari did not disappoint.
By 1992, the Minutemen were not only an NCAA Tournament team, they had dethroned Temple as the champs of the Atlantic 10 and UMass was a #3 seed in the bracket. They lost to Kentucky and Rick Pitino in the Sweet 16, one game prior to UK’s losing to Duke in one of the greatest college basketball games ever played, but Calipari had UMass pointing in the right direction. One year later, they were again a #3, although a second-round upset was a disappointment.
Calipari made the big recruiting haul for the 1994 season, bringing in highly touted center Marcus Camby and it paid off with a big year and a #2 seed in March Madness. But another second-round upset again left UMass wanting more.
The following year they were again a #2 and this time made it to the regionals. The prospect of a great battle of big men awaited in a regional final, with Camby on one side of the draw and Tim Duncan of top-seeded Wake Forest on the other.
But when Wake was ousted by Oklahoma State, the door looked wide open for UMass to reach the Final Four. It didn’t work out—the Minutemen went cold in the regional final and while it was their best season yet, they were still one step short.
1996 UMass basketball opened the season ranked #7 in the nation and had all the pieces. Surrounding Camby were three different forwards who were steady rebounders in Dana Dingle, Donta Bright and Tyrone Weeks. The backcourt was led by a pair of Puerto Ricans, 12-ppg scorer Carmelo Travieso and Edgar Padilla. They made a big mark on the season before November was out, with a 92-82 win over top-ranked Kentucky. By Christmas, it was UMass that was atop the polls after a 75-67 win over Georgia Tech.
The regular season had few problems in terms of wins and losses—they started 26-0 and kept their #1 ranking into late February, before a loss to George Washington ended the dream of a perfect season. The scare that came on January 14 wasn’t basketball-related. In a game against St. Bonaventure, Camby lost consciousness on the floor for ten seconds. We were only six years removed from a tragedy at Loyola Marymount, when Hank Gaithers had died on the court, so it was nothing to take lightly. Calipari left the arena to accompany his player to the emergency room and Camby did not return for two weeks.
Once Camby got back in the flow, all was good and they concluded the season with a 31-1 record and were given the #1 seed in the East Regional for the NCAA Tournament. The Minutemen got a tough game from Stanford in the second round, but won 79-74. Now they were on their way to Atlanta for another crack at the regionals.
Whether or not UMass had gotten a bracket break for the Sweet 16 depends on perspective. If you look at the seeds, they were clearly fortunate to be playing #12th-seeded Arkansas. But this was a Razorback program that had been to the last two national championship games, and won the crown in 1994. The talent was a shadow of what it had been, but head coach Nolan Richardson had been down this road before.
The Minutemen brought their defense and rebounding though, holding the Hogs to 34 percent from the floor and beating them 44-34 on glass. Dingle, Bright and even Travieso from the backcourt got to the boards. Weeks scored 16 points/7 rebounds. With that kind of support for Camby, you weren’t going to beat UMass and the star center delivered a 15/7 night of his own. Massachusetts led 40-24 at half and coasted to a 79-63 win.
A future NBA star was staring across the floor from Massachusetts for the regional final. Allan Iverson was the point guard for Georgetown and the Hoyas were the #2 seed in the East bracket. A good game was anticipated and for a half it was all that, as the Minutemen took a 38-34 lead into intermission.
But Massachusetts took over in the second half. Camby had a big day, racking up a 22/7 and Travieso also knocked down 20 points. Iverson scored 23, but only had one assist, as UMass kept the creative point guard from getting anyone else involved in the offense. At long last, Calipari was taking his program to the Final Four.
Kentucky had played with immense pressure to win the national championship all year long, and they were the opponent for the national semifinal in East Rutherford. The Wildcats had too much talent for the Minutemen—truth be told, Kentucky had too much talent for everyone in the country. Even though Camby played well, with 25 points/8 rebounds and UMass didn’t quite—cutting a 15-point lead to three in the second half, Kentucky was able to reassert control and win 81-74. Two nights later they won it all.
1996 UMass basketball saw its legacy take a hit when recruiting violations pertaining to Camby were uncovered. Officially, the school has been forced to vacate the wins in the NCAA Tournament, the usual sham job the NCAA does, wherein some of us are supposed to pretend we didn’t see UMass take apart Iverson’s Georgetown team (I had the Hoyas in the Final Four in my bracket that year—do I get retroactive credit now that the wins are vacated?). On the basketball floor, there’s no doubt what happened—1996 UMass basketball finally got over the hump and made the Final Four.