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C.J. Anderson steps into leadership role for UMass By Thomas Johnston

C.J. Anderson has been waiting for this opportunity his whole life.

After three years with the Massachusetts basketball team, Anderson was expected to see an increased role with the team. The 6-foot-6 guard had seen consistent time on the floor each of the last three seasons, despite only starting a total of 19 games.

But even Anderson couldn’t have expected what would happen to UMass during this past offseason.

The school fired coach Derek Kellogg, the man who had recruited Anderson to Amherst. The program then hired Pat Kelsey to take over as head coach, only for him to back out of the job just 30 minutes prior to his introductory press conference.

The Minutemen then hired Matt McCall, but the damage had been done. Seven players decided to transfer out of the program, including two starting guards in DeJon Jarreau and Donte Clark.

“Of course it was tough,” Anderson said. “I wish all of them the best. I love them all like brothers. You’ll never be able to separate us. I know they’ll do well where they’re at. Now I have to focus on what I have here with my team and just get ready.”

While his close friends were leaving the team, it would have been easy for Anderson to pack things up and move on as well.

But that’s not who he is. He wanted to remain loyal to the program and believes that his team can far exceed the low expectations put on them.

“I’m a believer,” Anderson said. “I believe in the impossible. I don’t ever think there is an impossible. I just believe that anything can happen. I told my guys, we can really do this. We can make something special and just shock the world. We don’t even have to go that far; we can just shock people here. They don’t think that much is going to happen, but that’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re here working everyday.”

McCall was pleased to see Anderson stay with the program, and is relying on him heavily this season.

“I’ve said this before about C.J. but I give him an enormous amount of credit for how he handled himself through all this,” McCall said. “Handled himself with class, handled himself like a professional. It was a lot for him, especially heading into his senior year. He wanted to stay here because the school meant something to him.”

With all the players departing, Anderson was left as the only senior on the roster and just one of four returning players that saw significant minutes a season ago.

This transition has seen him go from a role player to a key leader for a young, inexperienced UMass team.

While that might sound like a daunting task, it’s a role Anderson is embracing, and something he has been ready for.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life,” Anderson said. “It’s been great. The process of getting here, even the process of just the season starting now, I’ve been enjoying every bit of it. Just trying to stay consistent and never get bored with the process.

“Once we saw what we had left and the guys we picked up along the way, I knew I had to step up and be a leader for the team,” Anderson says. “Just try to guide the guys toward winning. I want to start a new tradition, a new culture, and it starts with me.”

In past seasons, Anderson has felt like just another guy on the roster. This season, McCall is putting him in positions where he feels he is having an impact each night, and finally has a chance to show what he can do on the court.

“This year, the minutes, they seem meaningful,” said Anderson. “I felt like I was always just out there the first two years. This year I feel I’m more involved in the offense. I’ve become a better leader when it comes to the other guys and having the other guys follow behind me. It’s been great so far.”

As a young player, Anderson had a slew of players he credited for showing him the ropes. He credits four in particular, Maxie Esho, Trey Davis, Jabarie Hinds and Cady Lalanne, as guys that mentored him and guys he still continues to look up to. He is now trying to pass their message down to the younger Minutemen.

“Cady told me don’t ever get bored with the process of getting better. Come in everyday ready to dominate. Maxie always told me to always care about yourself as well. You spend so much time caring for others, you got to make sure you go out there and make yourself happy. Of course the guards, Jabarie and Trey, they told me ‘your time is coming. Just keep at it, keep working and you’ll get your time to shine.’”

Home roots

Growing up in Memphis, Anderson never imagined he’d be spending his winters in bitter cold New England. But after seeing the school and meeting the players, he knew he had found the place he wanted to play.

“It’s a great school,” Anderson said of UMass. “Great environment here. I’ve grown here over my four years. Gotten to call people family here. I look at it as a second home.”

Though he has loved basketball since he was a young kid, it is actually a different sport that runs in his blood. His father, Cedric, played football at Tennessee Tech.

While Anderson’s 6-foot-6 frame would have Tennessee high school football coaches dreaming of his potential on the field, he was always enamored by basketball.

“He left it up to me,” Anderson said of his father. “He saw me staring at the TV watching basketball, he said Kobe was playing. I was just glued to the TV. My folks kept calling me to come eat and I wouldn’t move. He said ever since then, you want to play this sport? I said yeah and he took me to the gym. Ever since then that’s where I am now.”

"Great guy, a man of God."

His Memphis roots are something he tries to bring to Massachusetts. When asked about what his teams identity is this season, Anderson drew a comparison to the professional team in Memphis, the Grizzlies, who rely on a tough, gritty style of play. While they may lack talent, Memphis finds ways to win games by outworking its opponent.

Anderson has attempted to bring that mentality to the Minutemen, a never give up, never give in playing style.

“Just like the Memphis Grizzlies, grit and grind,” he said. “You have to be passionate, you have to fight through circumstance and just be ready to go. It’s that simple.”

The Tennessee roots gave Anderson a quick connection to McCall. The coach came from the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, where he coached some of Anderson’s former teammates.

Anderson was excited when he found out McCall would be the coach, saying he felt like he had basically already known him from what his past teammates had said.

“Great guy, a man of god,” Anderson’s friends told him of McCall. “He really cares about this family, cares about his players. They said you’re really going to get to shine under his system.”

Being versatile

One thing Anderson has always prided himself on is his versatility as a player, as he has the size and length to play either a guard or the wing. Yet in his first three seasons with UMass he was used almost exclusively at either the point or the off guard position.

With the small roster, McCall has thrust Anderson into a bevy of different roles that allow him to display his array of skills. On one possession, he may bring the ball up court, yet on the next he is playing the four spot. That kind of versatility is something coaches dream of.

“He knows what he has to do out there,” McCall said. “He knows pretty much every spot on the floor. We’re asking him to do a tremendous amount. We’re asking him to play the power forward spot and the point guard spot which is a challenge and he’s doing a great job. He’s extremely vocal in practice and is really growing into that role.”

Anderson feels that he is finally able to showcase his full skillset in the new offense.

“It’s fun. Just to be versatile and for my coach to tell me how much that would help the team, it’s been great,” Anderson said. “Even though I’m at the four, I’m still playing that guard role and being used now at the four. It works either way. When I’m at the point guard, I’ll probably start there, when he moves me to the four and go smaller. I’m being used either way we go.”

In his first season with UMass in 2014-15, Anderson played a total of 293 minutes, about 10 per game, scoring a total of 30 points. His minutes increased to over 20 per game the past two years, where he has averaged 3.5 and 4.9 points a game respectively.

Anderson’s coming out party arguably came during the opening round of the A-10 tournament last season, when he scored 17 points on an efficient 6-of-7 shooting to lead the Minutemen over Saint Joseph’s.

Through two games this season, Anderson has built on the tournament performance, averaging 34 minutes a game, scoring nine points in the opener against UMass Lowell and 12 points against Harvard. He has also added seven assists and six rebounds on the young season.

"I'll do what it takes to win." -Anderson

His leadership was put on display in the opening night win over the River Hawks, where he made two free throws to put UMass up by three with 30 seconds left. Anderson then came up with a steal on the next possession, and made a full court pass to set up an easy dunk to give the Minutemen their first win of the season.

“I’ll do what it takes to win,” Anderson said. “Wherever (McCall) wants me to be I’ll be there. This year I’m actually being used at those positions. It’s going to be a great thing to see for myself and just to be able to play.”

The guard is looking forward to showing the country what he can do, and that spirit will hopefully result in wins for UMass.

“My personal goal is for me to do what I need to do for this team to win and also for me to get a chance to play in the NBA and professional ball,” Anderson said. “It’s the first season I feel I can actually play my game. I can’t wait to show the world that.”

Thomas Johnston can be reached at tjohnston@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @TJ__Johnston.

Photos by Judith Gibson-Okunieff, Katherine Mayo and Caroline O'Connor.

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