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May 14, 2008The happiest man in college basketball may be the one who recently moved into Travis Ford's old office.
Three weeks ago, Derek Kellogg landed his first head-coaching gig, replacing Ford at Massachusetts. But this isn't your traditional story of some guy getting his start at the bottom of the Division I ranks far from home.
Kellogg was born, raised and played his high school ball 25 minutes from the UMass campus, in Springfield, Mass., home of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Kellogg went on to be a starting point guard for John Calipari at UMass during the program's glory days in the early to mid-1990s. That's where he met his future wife, Nicole. It's where he began his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Calipari. And much of his family still lives nearby, including his parents, who reside about 10 miles from UMass' home arena, the Mullins Center.
Five days after Kellogg was introduced as the Minutemen's new coach in front of 1,500 fans at a news conference, he experienced another huge thrill: Nicole gave birth to their first child, Maximus Antonio Kellogg.
"Two of my wife's college roommates sent us a UMass baby outfit about a month ago, so it turned out to get be a good omen," Kellogg said in a thick New England accent. "I've always felt that this is one of the greatest jobs in the country. Obviously, I'm a little biased in saying that. It holds a special place in my heart.
"But everybody I've known who has ever gone to school here has said they've had an unbelievably enjoyable experience. This is a great area to be in and live. Many people stay here their whole lives. I love everything about Amherst. ? This is my dream job, and I envision myself being here for a long, long time."
Perhaps that's why UMass didn't pursue more high-profile candidates. They spent much of the past two months trying to hold onto Ford, who was linked to several openings before his third season with the Minutemen came to an end. Ford turned down an offer from Providence and spoke to LSU officials about their opening. On April 10, the school issued a news release in which athletic director John McCutcheon said, "As all of you know, we've gone through the last couple of days with a great deal of anticipation. We would like everyone to know that Travis Ford will be with us for many years to come."
But five days later, Ford interviewed for the opening at Oklahoma State and went on to sign a seven-year contract worth $9.1 million with the Cowboys.
"We were real depressed," Minutemen shooting guard Ricky Harris said. "There was a lot of sadness all around. It was also tough for Ford to leave the people here."
There were understandable reasons for wanting to stay at UMass. Ford leaves behind a team that will have one of the nation's top backcourts next season, another source for Kellogg's enthusiasm.
Veteran Chris Lowe gives Kellogg the luxury of having a four-year starting point guard. The senior-to-be is coming off a year where he averaged 11.8 points and led the Atlantic 10 with 6.3 assists per game.
Wake Forest transfer Anthony Gurley, a former four-star recruit who sat out last season, could start alongside Harris and Lowe. A 6-foot-3 shooting guard from Boston, Gurley averaged 6.4 points in 14.5 minutes per game as a freshman in the ACC two seasons ago.
"Anthony is a great shooter and he's also athletic," said Lowe, who battled against Gurley in practice last season. "He's also got a great work ethic."
The Minutemen are losing their top three rebounders and leading scorer Gary Forbes (19.4 ppg), but three other reserves who averaged double-digit minutes are returning.
"This team is very tailor-made for what we did at Memphis," said Kellogg, who had been an assistant under Calipari with the Tigers for the past eight seasons. "We are a little thin on the rebounding department and I'm not sure who we are going to throw the ball to on the inside, but these guys are used to playing an up-tempo style and we have the personnel needed to run this and be very successful."
By "this," Kellogg means the dribble-drive motion offense that Memphis used to reach three consecutive Elite Eights, tie an NCAA-record with 104 victories over the past three seasons and reach the 2008 national title game. The offense is predicated on guards beating their defenders off the dribble and attacking the basket. Little screening is used and the ball is not passed inside much. Post players largely remain on the weak side in hopes of scoring on a putback.
Kellogg already has put plans in place to implement the same system at UMass. He hired former Pepperdine coach Vance Walberg, the architect of the dribble-drive motion offense, as an assistant, and the players have begun working on its basic principles in offseason workouts.
"I think this offense can showcase my abilities, especially in the open court," Harris said. "There are a lot more iso's (isolations) ? that is the biggest difference. I've got an all-around game and I can use it more now. In the past, if I got a rebound, I gave it to Chris. Now, I can push the ball up the court myself."
Lowe also gave the new offense rave reviews. "It's a very fun style to play," he said. "Once we get it down, we can be scary good."
That must sound scary to the rest of the A-10, considering the Minutemen tied for eighth in the nation in scoring last season at 81.5 points per game. The high mark was 107 points in a victory over Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.
The implementation of a fast-paced offense often makes new coaches popular with their players, but it's the eight years that Kellogg spent under Calipari at Memphis that give him instant credibility.
"He comes from one of the best programs in the country," Lowe said. "If you want to win and have a chance to play at the next level, you have to listen to him."
Kellogg was part of a Memphis program that won 11 games in the past three NCAA Tournaments. Kellogg gives much of the credit to Calipari's ability to scout players who steadily improve once they're in college. The Tigers had only one McDonald's All-American (Derrick Rose) last season.
"I worked with one of the best guys in college coaching and one of the best recruiters in the business," said Kellogg, who was selected one of Rivals.com's top 25 recruiters in 2006. "He took many guys who weren't rated highly coming out of high school and zeroed in on their potential to get better.
"He often took guys with chips on their shoulder, guys who would come in with something to prove. That's what I will be looking to do here. I want gym rats. I want players with passion."
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.