...in 1996, the UMass Minutemen ended the winningest season in UMass basketball history. Coached by John Calipari and led by future NBA star Marcus Camby, the Minutemen racked up a 26 game winning streak. Their ability to press opponents with a superior defense helped earn them only their second appearance in the NCAA tournament in 81 years. Ranked No. 1 in the nation, UMass beat Georgetown to reach the Final Four. The largest television audience ever for a college basketball game watched the Minutemen lose to the Kentucky Wildcats in the semi-finals. Although fans were disappointed, the team had brought unprecedented attention to the University of Massachusetts.
The University of Massachusetts fielded its first basketball team in 1899. Almost a century later, in 1995-1996, the team had the greatest season in modern UMass sports history. With a 35-2 record, the Minutemen made their first appearance ever in the NCAA Final Four.
Led by the National Player of the Year, Marcus Camby, a 6'11' center, and under the guidance of the Coach of the Year, John Calipari, the Minutemen boasted the best half-court defense in the country. Offensively, there was no more cohesive unit than the 1995-96 Minutemen. Double-teamed by defenders, Camby could still find open teammates. Even without scoring, Marcus Camby was such a key player that he soon became the most influential college player in the country.
The Calipari era at UMass was marked by an ability to beat teams on their home courts. On the road, in the single month of December 1995, the Minutemen defeated Maryland, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, and Memphis; their 11 non-conference victories brought them the number one ranking in the nation.
The squad experimented by trying new plays in practice and steadily improved its play in games. Camby anchored the UMass Five, but he had a talented group of teammates: point guards Edgar Padilla and Donta Bright, forwards Dana Dingle and Tyrone Weeks, and Carmelo Travieso, one of the better three-point shooters in the East. The Minutemen won by playing under control, going to the right spots to receive passes from Camby and Padilla, taking high-percentage shots and racking up the rebounds.
The Minutemen had gone to the NCAA Tournament only once before John Calipari came to Amherst. UMass hired Calipari -- a motivational writer and speaker who had served six seasons as an assistant at Kansas and Pittsburgh -- in in 1988. He transformed a school that had suffered 10 consecutive losing seasons into a basketball powerhouse. In his eight seasons as head coach, Calipari led the UMass men's basketball team to an overall record of 193-71, still the best winning percentage in school history. UMass won five straight Atlantic 10 Conference regular season and tournament titles.
At the beginning of the 1995-1996 season, Calipari promised that his team would be a force to be reckoned with. During the season, the Minutemen beat much-hyped Kentucky. Boston television stations, which rarely ventured west of Route 495, were suddenly making weekly pilgrimages to the Mullins Center, the Minutemen's home court.
They were not disappointed. The Minutemen compiled a 26-0 record in the regular season before being upset at home by George Washington in February, a mere bump in the road to the Final Four. When the NCAA tournament began, the Minutemen cruised through the first two rounds, including an impressive 86-62 thumping of Georgetown in the East Regional Final in Atlanta. UMass became only the third New England school to participate in the Final Four, the first since Providence College in 1987.
Matched against star-studded Kentucky in the semi-finals, the Minutemen were clearly the underdogs. However, fans' enthusiasm was at an all-time high. Tickets to the game sold for as much as $2500. The stage was set for a dramatic rematch: two exceptional teams, each with something to prove. UMass went into the game feeling under-respected, while Kentucky suited up with all the emotion of a highly-touted team that had been embarrassed by a less-talented foe.
Kentucky came out strong, building a 15-point lead early in the second half, and it looked as if the Wildcats were going to win easily. But this was UMass. Trailing 54-41 with 10 minutes to play, the Minutemen fought back. With four minutes to go, the Minutemen were down by three, 63-60. Camby scored from inside. Padilla stole the ball and fed Travieso for a score. Suddenly Kentucky was feeling pressure from the UMass defense.
With just under a minute and a half to play, Kentucky's lead was down to four points, and UMass had possession the ball. When the Minutemen missed two shots and had to foul, the Wildcats went to the line. Kentucky pulled away in the final minute, winning 81-74.
During the 1995-1996 season, the UMass basketball team captured the heart of Massachusetts and rekindled alumni affection for their alma mater. Many who had long ago put away their class rings had them re-sized and wore them proudly.
Unfortunately, the memorable 1995 season was stripped from the record books because of NCAA rules violations.
At the end of the 1995 season, John Calipari left UMass for a job as head coach of the New Jersey Nets in the NBA. After three years with the Nets and a season with the Philadelphia 76ers, Calipari returned to college ball as head coach at the University of Memphis.
Marcus Camby was the second pick in the first round of the 1996 draft. He began his professional career with the Toronto Raptors and was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team. He has played for the New York Knicks,Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, and currently plays for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Boston Globe, January 5, March 30 and March 31, 1996.
Worcester Telegram & Gazette, April 30, 1996.