HILADELPHIA - The game doesn't stir his juices quite the same way it did early in his head coaching career, but University of Massachusetts coach Bruiser Flint will still have some extra enthusiasm when he walks onto the floor at St. Joseph's, his alma mater, Sunday at 2 p.m.
"It doesn't have the effect that it used to," Flint said. "But I'll still get excited."
More important, though, is whether his Minutemen will get excited for the Atlantic 10 East showdown with the (6-6, 1-2 A-10) Hawks. UMass (7-7, 1-1) has shown that when it does get excited, it is capable of playing at high level, as shown in the 82-52 win over Fordham Jan. 8.
St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli doesn't have to worry about at least one of his troops being excited as there are few fiercer competitors than Marvin O'Connor, who is in his first year with the Hawks after transferring from Villanova.
"Marvin is the most competitive guy I've been around," Martelli said. "He'll cheat, kick, scratch, and claw to beat you."
Flint agrees. "He plays unbelievably hard," said Flint, who recruited O'Connor out of Philadelphia. "Sometimes too hard. He gives everybody a sense of toughness when he's out there because they know Marvin has their back."
O'Connor, whose streakiness prompted Martelli to call him a "scorer not a shooter", is averaging 15.4 points per game. Joining him in the Hawks' three-guard backcourt is N'aim Crenshaw (10.8) and Tim Brown (11.6 ppg).
Opponents had been playing zone against St. Joe's early in the season. Brown's outside shooting ability (50 percent from behind the arc) moved him into the starting lineup replacing Larry Jennings. His improved ball-handling ability has helped him stay there.
"Tim Brown is a very good player," Flint said. "They've played very well on the perimeter."
Rebounding hasn't always been easy with 6-9 center Damien Reid leading the Hawks with 6.4 boards per game. He is joined by forward Andre Howard on the frontline. Off the bench, William & Mary transfer Bill Phillips has been a helpful addition averaging 5.8 rebounds and 8.8 points.
"We're very similar in a lot of ways," Flint said of the two teams. "What they do and what we do... the makeup of our teams are similar. We run more set plays and they run more motion, but we're similar. They've had some tough losses. Phil and (assistant) Monte (Ross) are my guys. I talk to those guys all the time."
While his team has struggled at times, most recently in losses to Temple and St. Bonaventure, Martelli has been pleased with his players' ability to work as a unit.
"The bright spots have been the acceptance of roles presented. We have a lot of good players, but no great players," Martelli explained. "We tried to put everyone in situations were they can prosper and we can win games. If they each give us something, we have a good chance of winning. I'm delighted with the fact that we have depth and are able to use it."
HILADELPHIA - The last week has been a lonely one for UMass basketball.
The Minutemen followed up their highlight of the season - a 30-point win over Fordham - with seven days off.
This 7-7 crew (1-1 Atlantic 10) resurfaces here against St. Joseph's today in a peculiar state. They must remember all of those things that went right on Jan. 8, and hope it was more than merely a win over another struggling team.
That won't be what they will be facing today. While the Minutemen were busy punting away much of their early season, Phil Martelli's Hawks were beating teams such as New Mexico, South Carolina, Long Beach State and Western Kentucky.
If the tone of these names sounds familiar, that's probably because these are the sort of teams UMass generally used to beat.
But such is the nature of today's two opponents - a UMass team attempting to apply the brakes to its fall from respectability, and a St. Joe's team that is very much on the rise, and most likely will fight St. Bonaventure the rest of the way for second place in the A-10's Eastern Division.
The spot, it should be noted, that most preseason picks had going to UMass.
``It's always an emotional game down there,'' UMass coach Bruiser Flint said of playing at his alma mater, where his experiences as a head coach certainly have fit that description. He was ejected from his first game there as UMass coach on Feb. 25, 1997 - a 78-63 UMass loss.
Flint is 2-1 as a visiting coach in the Hawks' tiny gym - Alumni Memorial Field House - and 4-2 overall against St. Joe's over the last three seasons.
That winning percentage stands to take a hit if the Minutemen's .500 ways don't improve today against the Hawks (6-6 overall, 1-2 in A-10, who actually are playing better than their record indicates.
But if nothing else, both teams already have something in common. Both have lost to St. Bonaventure - the Hawks falling, 76-71, Wednesday night in Olean, N.Y. St. Joe's was unable to overcome a 36-22 halftime deficit in that one. But they're home now. The Hawks have been sparked by a pair of sophomore transfers. Marvin O'Connor, a 6-foot-4 guard from Villanova, leads the team in scoring at 15.4 points per game. Bill Phillips, a 6-9 forward from William & Mary, averages 8.8 points and 5.8 rebounds.
``The good thing is that offensively, we seem to be a team that can score 75 points per game,'' said Martelli, who is using a 10-man rotation. ``I think the brightest spot on this team right now is that the kids are accepting the roles that are given to them. That's important, because we have a lot of good players, but not a great player. There's been no hanging of heads - no whiners.''
HILADELPHIA — Bruiser Flint seems willing to accept that his team will probably never win with pure shooting. But that doesn't mean he thinks it can't win.
"We'll never be a high-percentage shooting team, but we did take good shots in our last game," said Flint, whose University of Massachusetts men's basketball team ends an eight-day break between games with today's 2 p.m. game at St. Joseph's.
"Shooting is all about confidence, anyway," Flint said. "One thing you can't do is turn the ball over. If you avoid that and rebound decently, you'll get good shots."
And for UMass (7-7, 1-1 Atlantic 10), getting good shots may be all that can be reasonably expected. Getting hot from the floor may not be in the cards for this team, at least not very often.
Today's game represents a midpoint, the 15th game of a 29-game regular season. UMass hasn't played since trouncing Fordham 82-52 Jan. 8.
The Minutemen shot 40 percent in that game, which was right around their 40.6 season average that ranks eighth among 12 teams in the Atlantic 10.
UMass ranks ninth in the Atlantic 10 in 3-point percentage (33.9), last in free-throw percentage (63.1), and 11th in 3-pointers made per game (4.64). If this is as good as the shooting gets, Flint hopes it will be sufficient against St. Joseph's (6-6, 1-2), which has lost its last two games.
The Hawks fell 76-71 to St. Bonaventure Wednesday, a game that saw St. Joseph's guard Marvin O'Connor score 22 points. The 6-foot-4 sophomore is a Villanova transfer who leads the Hawks with 15.4 points per game.
"I played with him in a high school all-star game in New York," UMass guard Shannon Crooks said. "I hear he's the man for them."
St. Joseph's is one of the deepest teams in the Atlantic 10, with transfers O'Connor and 6-9 forward Bill Phillips (from William & Mary) joining a team that returned nearly intact from last year.
Guards Tim Brown (11.6 ppg.) and N'aim Crenshaw (10.8) have been productive, while Phillips has contributed 8.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.
St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli says the Hawks' record doesn't reflect its effort.
"I'm surprised we haven't been able to get our opponents to turn the ball over more," he said. "Our ball pressure has been good, and we're attacking the post more on the backside. With the depth we have now, we're not sitting back, trying to avoid foul trouble."
But the Hawks' defense is eighth in the A-10, giving up 72.3 points per game and creating only 12.9 turnovers per game.
For UMass, the challenge has usually been squeezing enough points out of an offense whose single pure shooter, Monty Mack, attracts heavy defensive coverage and is shooting 40.4 percent.
Mack (19.9 ppg.) remains the major threat for a team that went seven minutes without a field goal in a Jan. 6 loss to St. Bonaventure. The team's tepid shooting seems to make it imperative that the Minutemen not fall too far behind today, since their shooting touch won't likely bring them back.
"One big difference between the St. Bonaventure and Fordham games was that we didn't dig ourselves such a big hole (against Fordham)," Flint said. "We've talked about not being afraid to make plays, about taking care of the ball and being disciplined."
UMass has been getting some offense from forward Chris Kirkland, who is averaging 16.3 points and 8.7 rebounds in his last three games.
"He's been up and down, but I'm happy for him because he's been rebounding better, especially on the offensive boards," Flint said. "We need Chris to have that type of production."