MHERST - Less than 24 hours after its disappointing loss to St. Bonaventure and less than 24 hours before its 2 p.m. Saturday game with Fordham, the University of Massachusetts basketball team's mood was upbeat at Friday's practice.
"We just have to go out and play our game and get a little confidence," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "We have to get a little run going. If guys come out and play hard, we'll be fine. We can't keep digging ourselves holes."
While Fordham hasn't become a powerhouse overnight, there is a new excitement around the Rams, infused largely by the arrival of coach Bob Hill.
The former coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks has given Fordham instant credibility, with fans, media and most importantly, recruits. Flint said it helps the league to add another high profile coach.
"It's good," he said. "We have a lot of high profile dudes in the league. We have (Temple's John) Chaney, Tom Penders at George Washington. It brings attention to the league."
This will be Hill's first time coaching in the Mullins Center, but hardly his first time in the building. Hill and former UMass coach John Calipari are good friends and were both assistant coaches together under Larry Brown at Kansas. Hill is also friendly with Flint and has spoken at the UMass Basketball Camp on several different occasions.
"Bob always comes to speak at our camp," Flint said. "I've stayed at his house a few times. He's a real good guy. I've learned a lot of ball from him."
Four Rams are scoring in double figures and surprisingly, junior guard Bevon Robin is not the leader. Jason Harris, his 5-foot-9 junior backcourt mate has passed him averaging 18.3 points per game to Robin's 17.0.
"You can't let Harris and Bevon Robin get off," Flint said. "If you do you're in trouble because both of those guys can really score the ball. We have to take one of those guys out of the equation."
A pair of sophomores have improved significantly to help the Rams as Teremun Johnson actually leads the team in assists from his small forward spot with 4.6 assists to go along with his 10.4 points per game.
Duke Freeman-McKamey has also been a pleasant surprise under Hill. His 6.8 rebounds lead Fordham and are among the Atlantic 10 best in the category.
After winning the league's most improved player award last year Alejandro Olivares has fallen back a bit and is out of the Fordham starting lineup.
Fouling the Rams hasn't been a good idea as every member of their starting five shoots over 63 percent from the line.
The Minutemen and Rams have three common opponents to this point, Connecticut, Providence and Iona. UConn beat both teams. Providence beat UMass and lost to Fordham, while Iona fell to the Minutemen and beat the Rams.
Last year when the Rams and Minutemen played at Mullins, the Rams prevailed, 66-60, in a game that turned when Flint was called for a late technical for leaving the coaches box.
"The infamous technical game...," Flint said. "We can't worry about that revenge stuff, we just have to win some games."
MHERST - Perhaps today is that proverbial fork in the road, the point at which a team either rediscovers its way or embarks on a path of no return.
As the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team approaches this afternoon's 2 o'clock game against Fordham at the Mullins Center, that feeling cannot be denied. It has been three weeks since the Minutemen played well, more than two weeks since they won a game, and much longer since they seemed in firm control of their own situation.
A loss to Fordham (7-6, 0-1), coming on the heels of Thursday's dreary 70-60 home loss to St. Bonaventure, would make the slippage seem just about irreversible.
The players and coaches aren't saying that, but the looks on their faces Thursday night left no question that this team is desperate to recapture some of the enthusiasm and optimism it enjoyed just before arriving at the Puerto Rico Holiday Classic in December, where UMass played poorly and hasn't recovered.
"We just need to get a win under our belts," forward Mike Babul said gamely but unconvincingly after the St. Bonaventure game. "We've got to listen to the game plan, come out and play hard."
"I think the team is working hard, and as a coach, that's all I can ask for," coach Bruiser Flint said as he looked a three-game losing streak in the eye.
Even if Flint is right about the effort, there's little doubt the confidence level has sagged. It took 29 minutes for UMass to reach 30 points Thursday night, and 16 turnovers didn't help.
"Some of those turnovers, we grabbed the ball, but they just grabbed it away from us," Flint said.
The Minutemen trailed by as many as 23 points, and for a time it looked as if the team's worst loss in Mullins Center history (102-81 to Fresno State in 1996) would be pushed aside for a new low.
Another Mullins record seems in jeopardy today. Since it opened in 1993, the building's smallest crowd for men's basketball was — 5,078 against Niagara in November 1998.
UMass drew 5,136 for Thursday night's game, and as the school remains in intersession, the prospect exists for an even lower number today.
Last year, Fordham carved out another small bit of Mullins history the Minutemen would rather forget. The Rams' 66-60 victory, a game marked by a costly technical to Flint with 40 seconds left, is Fordham's only Atlantic 10 road victory in 32 tries since joining the league in 1995.
And the Rams, under first-year coach Bob Hill, are a better team this year.
Wednesday night's 82-74 loss to St. Joseph's came despite 25 points from junior guard Bevon Robin, who had been the subject of a severe critique by Hill on Monday's A-10 teleconference call.
Hill said Robin was still learning to do basic tasks such as eating and sleeping properly, wearing his contact lenses during games and most of all, communicating with his teammates.
But Robin is still averaging 17 points per game, just behind guard Jason Harris (18.3), the team scoring leader.
Hill says the spiritual leaders are center John Pugh and forward Duke Freeman-McKamey. But the coach still describes a team of players that, in his words, "didn't really like one another," and is still trying to grasp his concept of team unity.
Flint says UMass has unity, which was lacking last year. As a team that has suffered erratic point guard play and little low-post scoring, and is without a true power forward or much depth, the Minutemen are hanging their hopes on the fact that they know they're in it together.
"This is a good crew, one I enjoy being around," Flint said. "They are not quitters. We're struggling now, but we'll be back."