MERST - In another year, this would seem easy.
St. Bonaventure and Fordham, at home. Two quick wins to open the Atlantic 10 Conference men's basketball season.
But for the University of Massachusetts, this week's schedule is sprinkled with pitfalls. St. Bonaventure, which comes to the Mullins Center for tonight's 7 o'clock league opener, is 8-2. Fordham, Saturday's opponent, has won at Providence, something UMass couldn't do.
Tonight it's the Bonnies, who have had only one winning season in conference play since 1986, but are a much better team these days, and singing a different tune.
"I like the position we're in," Bonnies coach Jim Baron said. "We're looking forward to league play. But we also know UMass' record is no indication of their potential, because they have the ability to score and they still rebound, and defend very well."
UMass is 6-6 for a simple reason: whatever the Minutemen can do, they haven't shown they can do it for very long. Inconsistency has been this team's constant companion, and UMass has lost three of its last four games.
"When we've shot well, we've won, and when we haven't shot well, we've still been right in the game," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "But when we don't shoot well from the field, we also don't shoot well from the line, and that's double jeopardy because we don't score enough to start runs for us, or stop runs by the other team."
A case in point was last week's 61-60 overtime loss at Providence. The Minutemen lost on a fluky last-second play in which the ball deflected off several sets of hands before handing in the grasp of the Friars' David Murray, who scored the winning basket with 1.3 seconds left.
But had UMass not shot 32.4 percent from the floor and 56.5 from the line, the game might not have come down to the final play. And while the problem was offense in Providence, it was defense and motivation during the Dec. 21-23 Puerto Rico Holiday Classic, and rebounding for much of the year.
Against this backdrop comes a game against St. Bonaventure, which was 8-8 in the A-10 last year. The Bonnies' only winning conference record since 1986 was a 9-7 mark in 1994-95. But this year, St. Bonaventure must be factored into a wide-open East Division race in which Temple is the heavy favorite but has faced key injuries, and every other team is flawed.
St. Joseph's and UMass have been inconsistent, Fordham is gradually improving and Rhode Island is rebuilding. UMass was picked second in the preseason A-10 poll, with the Bonnies third, but the early weeks of the season suggest it should have been the other way around.
In Sunday's 84-71 win over Niagara, St. Bonaventure shot 52 percent and received double-figure scoring from guards Tim Winn, Patricio Prato (an athletic freshman from Argentina), David Messiah Capers and J.R. Bremer, and 6-foot-6 sophomore Robert Cheeks. Junior Peter Van Paassen, at 6-11 the club's tallest player, had nine points despite foul trouble.
Cheeks' emergence has helped take some pressure off 6-9 senior Caswell Cyrus, the three-time conference shot-blocking leader who has been bothered by a foot injury. And with Winn (4.1 steals per game) leading the havoc, the Bonnies have forced 43 turnovers in their last two games.
"They're also playing with a lot more poise than in the past, and that's because they have senior leadership with guys like Winn, Capers and Cyrus," Flint said. "They may be the most improved team in the league."
January 6, 2000 7 p.m.
Head Coach: Jim Baron
Record this season: 8-2
Likely starters: Tim Winn (G), David Messiah Capers (G), Caswell Cyrus (C), Peter Van Paassen (F), Vidal Massiah (F)
Leading scorers: Tim Winn (15.3 ppg), Caswell Cyrus (12.4)
Leading rebounders: Peter Van Paassen (7.5 rpg), Caswell Cyrus (6.3)
Leading assist men: Tim Winn (4.4 apg), Patricio Prato (2.8)
Last game: W 84-71 vs. Niagara
or those discouraged by UMass' inability to run a functioning offense over the last 12 games, the news isn't good.
The Minutemen (6-6) still lack a playmaker who can tie all of their individual parts together.
And few teams can destroy a disorganized scheme better than St. Bonaventure, in town tonight for UMass' Atlantic 10 opener.
The days are obviously long gone when a UMass team could count on a home win against the Bonnies.
St. Bonaventure has won two of the last four games in the series - both in Olean, N.Y. - and has perhaps the most disruptive backcourt in the conference.
Point guard Tim Winn, who finished second to George Washington's Shawnta Rogers in the conference in steals with 53 (81 overall) last season, already has 34 this season for a 3.8 average.
David Messiah Capers, his backcourt mate, has 16.
Overall, the Bonnies are off to an 8-2 start that includes wins over USC, UNC-Charlotte and Colorado State.
They are, in the words of UMass coach Bruiser Flint, a team with ``strong upperclassmen leadership.''
With Caswell Cyrus and Peter Van Paassen doing a strong job under the glass, they are also the sort of team capable of giving the Minutemen fits from all spots on the floor.
But about that lack of a playmaker . . .
``At times we have a tendency to throw the ball around,'' said Flint. ``But Shannon (Crooks) has gotten a lot better. He can get to the basket. You have to remember that I'm playing with a kid who hasn't played too much basketball over the last two years. And with Jonathan (DePina) in (at point guard), we don't get much scoring out of that position, so that's the way we have to go.''
Flint has already said, with much conviction, that his best player (Monty Mack) is not going to play point guard, based on what the shooting guard showed in that position during practices two years ago.
The result is a backcourt that will be severely tested tonight by one of the best guards in the nation when it comes to defensive pressure.
Flint's team is pressed enough to find consistency without falling prey to Winn. But Flint is looking for something more basic right now - like a consistent effort.
If nothing else, last week's overtime loss to Providence marked an improvement in intensity over the Minutemen's horrible three-game showing during the Puerto Rico Holiday Classic.
``I can't say anything bad about our effort in the Providence game,'' said Flint. ``We lost that game in a scramble. What we need, right now, is to practice shooting the ball.''
MHERST - In Bruiser Flint's first three years as head coach of the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team, his team's fortunes have turned on how it has done in Atlantic 10 conference play.
In his first two seasons, the Minutemen made strong runs early in their conference schedule and ended up in the NCAA Tournament. Last year the Minutemen were barely above water at 9-7 and finished the season out of the postseason.
With a 6-6 record, UMass' fate once again will rest on its success or failure in A-10 play, which begins tonight at 7 against St. Bonaventure, followed by a home game Saturday against Fordham.
Tonight's game will mark the return to the Mullins Center of former Minuteman Tyrone Weeks, who is an assistant coach at St. Bonaventure.
"How well we do is going to be how well we do in the league," Flint said. "Hopefully we can get these two (wins) and get some confidence."
"They're big and they have experience," Flint said of the Bonnies. "Other than Temple, they are the toughest matchup."
"UMass' record is no indication of their potential," said Bona coach Jim Baron. "They have the ability to score. They play aggressive defense and they rebound the ball well. They could very easily have nine wins. Monty Mack is one of the best guards in the conference. Chris Kirkland has played well and Shannon Crooks is a very good addition for them."
The Bonnies (8-2) present a matchup challenge for the Minutemen. Point guard Tim Winn has been a UMass-killer over his career, and rattled Jonathan DePina significantly last year. His 4.1 steals per game is fourth in the nation and his 15.3 points per game leads St. Bonaventure. He will match up with Crooks.
Winn is joined in the three-guard backcourt by freshman sharpshooter Patricio Prato and David Messiah Capers, who will be guarded by Mack and Mike Babul, respectively.
"They beat us last year and they have a better team this year," Mack said.
Caswell Cyrus is listed as the center, though 6-foot-11 Peter Van Paassen also has center height. Cyrus is coming off an injury that caused him to miss the Bonnies' 84-71 win over Niagara, but he is expected to play. Foul trouble could play a key role on both sides.
"If they let Chris (Kirkland) get beat to death the way he did against Providence, we're in trouble," Flint said.
Kitwana Rhymer will guard the potentially explosive Cyrus defensively, but will be guarded by VanPaassen on offense. Kirkland will try to guard the much larger VanPaassen, while contending with Cyrus' shot-blocking on offense.