MHERST, Mass. -- Both coaches in today's Rhode Island-Massachusetts game, to be nationally televised on ESPN, have had to deal with unusually strong pressure this season.
The reasons have been different, but the end result has been the same: Both URI's Jerry DeGregorio and Bruiser Flint of UMass have had to work to keep their teams going in the right direction.
In DeGregorio's case, many of the problems were not of his own making. The first-year coach took over a program in which anything that could go wrong in the offseason did go wrong,. His fight has been more to just survive than to try and prosper.
After winning two games in a row, following a 10-game losing streak, DeGregorio finally seems to be establishing himself and his program on firm ground. The way his team has reacted to its problems has been one of the most positive developments yet in DeGregorio's brief time as a head coach.
URI enters today's game with a 5-12 record, 2-2 in Atlantic 10 play, but in better shape than at any point all season.
Flint's problems, at least from the outside, seem even more severe, and have reached the point where they now threaten his job.
The affable former assistant to John Calipari directed his teams to a 54-41 record in his first three years as coach. But, coming after Calipari made the program a national power, that was not enough for some, especially because the team went 14-16 last season, the school's first losing record in 10 years.
There is no doubt that Flint is on the hot seat, that his team had better qualify for a postseason tournament, or his job could be in jeopardy.
Flint has begun addressing such issues.
``The moment I start thinking about that is the moment I start panicking,'' he said last week when asked about his status. ``I have two years left on my contract. I just have to concentrate on my job. You're always facing pressure here, from day one.
``But I have to admit, it's gotten easier for me to deal with. That's coaching in the '90s everywhere. People want you to win.''
Flint is drawing support, including from his former boss, Calipari, who took in last week's UMass win at St. Joseph's.
``They have a terrific person, a terrific coach and I think they have to pay attention to that,' Calipari said ``People have to understand that they have young kids in the program right now. But they have a terrific nucleus, and that young kid (Micah Brand, 6-foot-10) can really play. But it's hard. The (fans) have been spoiled.''
UMass comes in 8-8 on the season, 2-2 in A-10 play. The Minutemen have, at times, given signs that they are a top-level team. But at other times they have struggled. They lost a heart-breaking one-point decision on a last-second basket to Providence College. After opening A-10 play with a home loss to St. Bonaventure, they looked impressive in a home win over Fordham, then in the road victory at St. Joseph's.
Two nights ago, UMass led Dayton by 14 early in the second half. But Dayton, helped by both its excellent shooting and too-many UMass turnovers, charged from behind for a 57-52 triumph.
Massachusetts remains a dangerous team, although Flint has had to experiment to put the pieces together.
Kitwana Rhymer, 6-feet-10, has emerged as a solid, physical center, the type which gives URI problems.
Like the Rams, the Minutemen have looked for a leader at the point. Shannon Crooks, a transfer from St. John's, plays there much of the time. While he is a fine player he, like URI's Zach Marbury, is more of a natural off guard. With Monty Mack set at the big guard, Crooks has had to play the point.
At times, Jonathan DePina has taken over as the floor leader. That is his natural position, but he is not as good offensively, so the team does not have as much firepower when DePina is in.
MHERST - In some respects Jerry DeGregorio is lucky.
Just three seasons ago, he was a high school coach and history teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Connecticut and not exactly on everybody's short list to become a Division I head coach. But after two years as an assistant under Jim Harrick at Rhode Island, the man who some affectionately call Jerry D is now the head coach for the defending Atlantic 10 champions.
In other ways, DeGregorio is not so lucky. The hand he was dealt in his first year as a head coach was not exactly stacked with aces. Shortly after being named coach, his best player Lamar Odom bolted for the NBA.
The Rams were already in a rebuilding mode with the graduation of Antonio Reynolds-Dean and Preston Murphy. Odom's departure deepened the hole.
URI's personnel problems didn't end there. Ed Brown, who would have been the starter at power forward this year, was academically ineligible and left school. Highly regarded freshman Brian Woodward didn't qualify academically either.
Once the season started it got worse as power forward Tiger Womack went down with an injury. Walk-on Justin Henry even started some games at forward while Womack was out.
During one stretch the Rams lost 10 in a row and were 3-12. But two straight wins over La Salle and Duquesne might be a sign that the Rams are in sync now that they're healthy at 5-12 (2-2 A-10).
The Minutemen (8-8, 2-2) will try to stop the URI winning streak Saturday in a noon game at the Mullins Center.
"They just got healthy," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint. "They got Womack back. The guards are playing a lot better."
One of those guards, sophomore floor general Zach Marbury, the younger brother of New Jersey Nets star Stephon Marbury, isn't as good as his older brother but has improved as the season has advanced. He leads the Rams at 15.7 points per game.
"One of the biggest reasons that they've been playing better is that Marbury is playing well," Flint said. "He's been scoring for them and not turning the ball over."
Small forward Tavorris Bell built off his solid freshman year averaging 14.4 points and 6.1 rebounds from the small forward spot.
Despite being hampered by a back injury, senior center Luther Clay has played well for the Rams with a team best 7.9 rebounds per game to go along with 13 points per game.
Flint expects a good matchup between Clay and Kitwana Rhymer.
"Clay has been playing extremely well," Flint said. "But Kit has been playing pretty good too. He played extremely well against (Dayton center Mark) Ashman" Thursday.
A healed Womack has rejoined the starting lineup at power forward, while Tip Vinson rounds out the starting five at shooting guard.