MHERST, Mass.--On the road again. It didn't sound so bad when Willie Nelson sang about it, but Willie didn't have to lace up a pair of basketball shoes and play in front of a hostile crowd.
The University of Dayton Flyers, who on Saturday at Fordham got a rude reminder of what it's like on the road in the Atlantic 10 Conference, will try again tonight at the University of Massachusetts.
Dayton regained its West Division lead on Tuesday night when Duquesne was dumped at Rhode Island, but the Flyers must win at UMass to hang onto the top rung.
"We're going to have to play well to win that game," UD coach Oliver Purnell said. "It was said to our basketball team loud and clear. When you go on the road in this league, you've got to strap it on."
Purnell probably will make a change in the UD lineup, giving Yuanta Holland his first start of the season at power forward in place of Nate Green, whose playing time has been reduced to an average of less than nine minutes in the last four games while Holland has averaged more than 30.
Holland scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in Dayton's 70-61 loss to Fordham and could have done much better if he hadn't missed so many shots around the basket. He wasn't the only UD player who had trouble finding the hoop at Fordham after grabbing offensive rebounds.
"You'd like to think we could do better (on stick-backs)," Purnell said. "We're a Division-I basketball team."
Mark Ashman, UD's 6-foot-10 center, has scored in double figures for eight straight games and has increased his rebounding contribution in the last four. He grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds against Fordham after collecting nine against Miami, 10 against Virginia Tech and eight in the Xavier game. He has boosted his rebounding average to 6.7.
Tony Stanley has been a barometer for the team's success. When the 6-foot-4 shooting guard plays well, the Flyers usually win. When Stanley's shooting is out of synch--as it was against Cleveland State (3-10), St. Louis (4-14) and Fordham (4-17)--Dayton goes down. Stanley is averaging 14.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.
Massachusetts is 3-2 at home, losing to Marshall (65-55) and St. Bonaventure (70-60) and beating Boston University (70-51), Villanova (52-51) and Fordham (82-52). Coach Bruiser Flint's team won its most recent game Sunday at St. Joseph's.
The Flyers, who are 0-2 at the Mullins Center in Amherst, will have to play some good defense and hustle for rebounds tonight. UMass has some excellent rebounders in 6-foot-6 forward Chris Kirkland and 6-foot-10 center Kitwana Rhymer, who are averaging 6.1 and 7.4. The Minutemen also have one of the league's best outside shooters in 6-foot-3 guard Monty Mack, who is averaging 19.9 points and has scored 20 or more points six times in the last eight games. Mack must be guarded closely.
Dayton, which returns to UD Arena on Saturday for a 2 p.m. game with George Washington, has played at the Mullins center twice. Four years ago, the Flyers gave the No.1-ranked Minutemen a good battle before losing to Marcus Camby and company, 78-58. UD trailed by only four (51-47) with 10:23 remaining. Camby scored 38 points and collected 11 rebounds.
Two years later, the Flyers revisted the Mullins Center and were destroyed by another UMass center, 6-foot-10 Lari Ketner, who celebrated his 21st birthday by scoring 33 points. The Flyers' only victory over UMass was a 69-67 decision at UD Arena on Feb. 23, 1997.
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MHERST - Most of the time, it's been a very good Dayton men's basketball team this season. But not all the time.
There was the victory over Kentucky, but there was also the loss to Fordham. There was the 8-0 start, but there's also been the 4-3 record since then.
Nonetheless, Dayton comes to the Mullins Center tonight with a deep and experienced team, one that stands in the way of the momentum the University of Massachusetts is seeking.
"UMass is playing much better now," Dayton coach Oliver Purnell said as the Flyers (12-3, 2-1 Atlantic 10) prepared to meet UMass (8-7, 2-1) in tonight's 7:30 game. "They came out of St. Joseph's with a win, and that is very difficult to do."
UMass has won two straight, a modest achievement in itself. But the method of success has encouraged a team that had been reeling before drubbing Fordham 82-52 Jan. 8, then shooting 50 percent in Sunday's 73-69 win at St. Joseph's.
Dayton had won three straight before losing 70-61 at Fordham Saturday, a game that awakened a sensitive but lingering issue with the Flyers — their ability to win on the road. Dayton is 2-2 in road games this season, though the Flyers are also 2-0 in neutral-site games, including an eye-opening 68-66 win over Kentucky Nov. 29 in Cincinnati.
And with a veteran team helped by highly-regarded 6-foot-6 freshman Brooks Hall, Dayton's vulnerability away from home is not considered much different than anyone else's this season.
"They have a lot of guys who have been through the wars," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "They can go nine or 10 men deep, and (guard) Tony Stanley and (center) Mark Ashman are two of the better players in the league."
Stanley is averaging 14.6 points and 5.8 rebounds, and the 6-4 junior is one of the league's most versatile players. Ashman, a 6-10 senior, leads Dayton with 6.7 rebounds per game and is averaging 13.3 points.
Sophomore guard David Morris (9.3 ppg) and Hall (9.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg) have also been prolific.
Purnell said stopping UMass involves at least slowing down Minuteman guard Monty Mack, who is averaging 19.8 points.
"You're always concerned about him, because if the game is close coming down the stretch, you know they'll make sure he touches the ball," Purnell said.
That has almost always been true. But against St. Joseph's, the Minutemen won even though Mack scored only four of his 19 points after halftime, and shot 2 for 8 in the final 20 minutes.
"The whole thing for our team was patience," Flint said. "We didn't come down and try to make what I call hero plays, one guy trying to win it by himself and maybe making a turnover."
Flint also may have solved some lineup questions at St. Joseph's. UMass stayed with an eight-man playing rotation that seemed to work, and by putting 6-10 Kit Rhymer and 6-11 Micah Brand on the floor at the same time, the Minutemen improved their rebounding without noticeably sacrificing in other areas.
After tonight's game, UMass is home against Rhode Island Saturday at noon. The Minutemen are hoping to give themselves a little daylight from the .500 mark, but tonight comes first.
"Dayton has beaten Kentucky, and they have some nice wins," Flint said. "They've got guys who can score, and they play well defensively."
MHERST - For the first month of the season, the Dayton Flyers were one the best early-season stories in college basketball.
On Dec. 11 with an 8-0 record that included a stunning 68-66 upset of Kentucky, the Flyers were getting national attention that they hadn't experienced in a long time.
Since then, however, Dayton has been pretty enigmatic, going 4-3, including a surprising 70-61 loss to Fordham Saturday.
The Flyers land in Amherst tonight for a 7:30 game with the University of Massachusetts. UMass is preparing for the dangerous squad that beat Kentucky, New Mexico and Xavier instead of the inconsistent one that fell to Cleveland State, Saint Louis and Fordham.
"They're pretty good," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint.
The game will feature a good matchup at shooting guard between UMass' Monty Mack and Dayton's Tony Stanley, in a rematch of a fun showdown between the two last year.
Mack is currently the Atlantic 10's second leading scorer at 19.8 points per game. UMass hasn't had a player average 20 or more in a season since 1995-96, when Marcus Camby averaged 20.5.
"We have to be concerned with Monty Mack," said Flyers coach Oliver Purnell. "He's one of the best guards in our conference."
Stanley leads the Flyers with 14.6 points per game, which is 12th in the A-10. He is among the A-10's top rebounding guards at 5.8 per game.
A year ago, Stanley outscored Mack, 18-15, in UD Arena, but Mack had four points in overtime, including a game-winning jumper with 10 seconds left as UMass prevailed, 59-57.
"He's got skills, I got skills, let's put them to the test," Mack said. "Lets go out and play hard."
In addition to Stanley, UMass will have to focus on center Mark Ashman. At 6-foot-11, Ashman is more of a finesse big man who relies on post moves and a collection of upfakes more than on brute strength. He is averaging 13.3 points and 6.7 boards per game. Tonight marks his 104th straight start, which ties a Dayton record.
Officiating could play a role in the pivot. If UMass is allowed to be physical, Ashman could struggle, but if the Minutemen get into foul trouble, Ashman could put up big numbers.
"He gets you off your feet," Flint said. "He'll hook fake you and up-and-under you to get you off your feet and then drive by you. Or he'll pop out and shoot jumpers."
Dayton is one of the deepest teams in the A-10. Even without injured Cain Doliboa, 10 players are still averaging close to seven minutes per game.
UMass (8-7, 2-1 A-10) will try to match its longest winning streak of the season as the Minutemen defeated Boston University, Boston College and Villanova consecutively in December.
"We've been on a little roll and everybody wants to see how we're going to play," Mack said. "If we pass this test, we'll be all right."
Mack's backcourt mate agreed.
"Everybody is picking it up," said sophomore Shannon Crooks. "We're taking our time more on offense and not rushing things. Everybody is more in sync. We've been coming mentally prepared. We just need to keep it going."
"We've played better since we came back from Puerto Rico," Flint said. "We played better against Providence but we lost a tough game. St. Bonaventure is a good team. They're probably the best team in the league right now. We're playing harder. Guys are scrapping and scraping all over the floor."
Some of that improvement has come from Crooks, who has improved offensively of late and has been a catalyst on defense.
"Shannon has become a better player because he's much more patient. He's not forcing things. He's been really good defensively," Flint said. "I knew he was going to rush because he wanted to impress everybody. I knew it would take time for him for him to come around."
Crooks is glad to have his early slump behind him.
"I'm picking my spots as far as shooting the ball," Crooks said. "I'm trying to take my time. It's been a lot more fun, especially when you're winning."