- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- When the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team faces Memphis at the TD Garden on Saturday (6 p.m.), they will be donning old-school uniforms from the late 60s and early 70s.
The throwback theme also applies well for one of UMass's best players. This is a homecoming for guard Anthony Gurley.
"When I heard we were playing at the Garden this year, I got pretty excited. This is something I've been looking forward to," said Gurley, the Boston native who won two state championships at Newton North High School.
Gurley, a junior who is second on the team in averaging 16.6 points per game, has reserved more than 20 tickets for the contest which was originally scheduled when John Calipari, the former UMass coach, was still at Memphis.
A lot has changed for Gurley since he left Newton North, his journey taking him from Wake Forest and then to UMass under former coach Travis Ford. When Ford left for Oklahoma State this year, it meant Gurley would have to adjust to another coach with UMass alum Derek Kellogg returning home.
He said it's been so far, so good.
"That was pretty difficult at first and something I had to get used to, but it's been a good experience," Gurley acknowledged. "[Kellogg] is a player's coach -- he has a lot of energy and you can definitely tell he wants to win. He's very hard on us every day in practice."
It's been an up-and-down start for UMass (5-5) this season, with Gurley saying improvements on defense and rebounding will be needed against top-tier teams. Saturday night would be a good time to make strides in those areas, as Memphis enters at 7-1. Gurley sees an opponent that is "athletic, they'll push the ball up the floor, and will try to get to the rim and draw fouls."
As for Gurley himself, Kellogg views him as a player who can help UMass once again establish itself as a consistent top program. When Kellogg was an assistant at Memphis, he recruited Gurley.
"He's a special kid, and I've enjoyed getting to know since I came back to UMass," said Kellogg, who played and then coached under Calipari, and is attempting to bring some of the same excitement back to campus that Calipari did in the glory years of the 1990s. "It's nice to have a Boston native as one of your best players. He's really come into his own and now he's getting more comfortable with my style of coaching, he's getting in shape, and he's become a really good player for me.
"It's nice to have an older, more mature guy," he continued. "He can be a rock with so many new guys and young guys coming into the program. He was one of two of our hardest working guys in the offseason and he's carried that over in how hard he works in practice. Now we're trying to get him to be a leader, so when he's working out he drags 2, 3, 4 other guys in with him. That's when you know you really have a program, when the older guys show the younger guys."
This is UMass' first game at the Garden since 1997, but Gurley should feel right at home. This is where he would often attend Celtics games with teams that included Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty, Tony Battie and others, and also where he won those state titles which he said he still thinks about often.
"We had two great teams, and you'd just go out there and play and have fun," he said.
Next up Kentucky?
Kellogg said UMass has considered the possibility of playing Kentucky, now coached by Calipari, in Boston in the near future.
"It's something that has been talked about, but I'm not sure next year is the right year for our program," he said. "We'll find out as things move forward. I want to make sure that if we're going to play in Boston that our team is at a level where we can compete with one of the better teams in the country. I know Coach Cal is going to want it to where both teams and programs benefit, not where it looks a certain way for one group. If that situation comes into play, he and I would discuss and decide on when the best time would be."
It's a homecoming for UMass' guard Anthony Gurley on Saturday when the Minutemen face Memphis at the TD Garden.