ith Xavier coming off back-to-back disappointing games, preceded directly by a big victory, who knows what to expect out of the Muskies? Eight days ago, the Muskies beat UD in an important A-10 game at the Gardens. Three days later, Xavier blew a double-digit halftime lead and lost to George Washington. Yesterday, the Musketeers were less than impressive in victory over Canisius. Saturday, UMass (12-10, 6-3 in the A-10) invades our territory. Will we see a purposeful, hungry team on Saturday at high noon in the Gardens? And…if we do, will it be the Musketeers?
UMass has been stellar on the road this season in the A-10 (3-0), driving an impressive record from the Mullins Center overall (6-3). The last time the Minutemen finished the season with an unblemished A-10 road record was the 1995-96 season. The Musketeers hope to dash any hopes that UMass might have of duplicating that feat on Saturday. Xavier has an opportunity to even the all-time series with UMass (the Minutemen lead the series, 4-3). Xavier’s record against Bruiser Flint is 2-2.
Leading the charge for the Minutemen will be Monty Mack, a 6-3 senior guard who averages 19.2 ppg (2nd in the A-10) and is the school’s ninth all-time leading scorer. Mack surpassed two well-known players on the all-time scoring list at UMass in the last three games: Julius Erving and Marcus Camby. Unfortunately, Xavier will have to contend with more than Monty Mack on Saturday. Chris Kirkland has also played an important role for UMass, averaging 15.4ppg (11th in the A-10) and 6.0rpg (14th in the A-10). Kitwana Rhymer, a 6-10 junior center, leads the team in rebounding (7.6rpg – 4th in the A-10).
As a team, UMass plays excellent defense and takes care of the ball better than the opposition. On the year, the Minutemen have allowed opponents to shoot only 41% from the floor (4th in the A-10). Bruiser Flint’s team has been superb in taking care of the ball – the Minutemen commit only 15 turnovers per game, compared with 17.1 for their opponents. UMass is 4th in turnover margin in the A-10.
The Minutemen enter Saturday’s game with two losses in their last three games. Nine days ago (2/1/00), they were manhandled in their own gym by Temple, 75-48. Then, last Saturday, they lost a tough game to Texas in Amherst, 68-57. UMass may have gotten better against LaSalle on Wednesday, however. They rediscovered their formula for success, winning handily, 82-48.
UMass may try to slow the pace a bit. They are more comfortable with the game in the 60’s and 70’s than in the mid-80’s, like Xavier might prefer. I look for this game to come down to FTs, where UMass has struggled this year. The Minutemen are shooting only 64% on the season (12th in the A-10). Xavier wins a close one behind a raucous home crowd, 70-65.
INCINNATI — As he analyzed his team's fairly solid position in the Atlantic 10 Conference standings, University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach Bruiser Flint sounded a note of optimism.
"If we win the games we have to win," Flint said, "we'll be right there at the end."
In other words, success comes by beating the teams UMass should beat if both teams play their best. Now the question: is today's test at Xavier one of those games?
Flint insists that UMass (12-10, 6-3 Atlantic 10), which is tied with St. Bonaventure for second place in the A-10 East Division, can beat every team it plays. That includes Temple, he said, but with seven games left in the regular season, that Feb. 26 game in Philadelphia jumps out as one that's likely to wind up in the loss column.
Of all the others, the toughest on paper might be either the March 4 game at St. Bonaventure, or today's noon game at the Cincinnati Gardens — depending on which version of Xavier (14-8, 4-5) shows up.
This is the only team in the nation to beat top-ranked Cincinnati, a 66-64 upset Dec. 18. The Musketeers also have the conference's leading rebounder in David West, a 6-foot-8 freshman who is averaging nine boards per game.
But this is also the same outfit that lost 111-70 to Kansas in November and 80-49 three weeks ago at home to La Salle — a team UMass hammered 82-48 Wednesday.
Xavier coach Skip Prosser tried not to inflate preseason expectations, given the loss of guards Lenny Brown and Gary Lumpkin, and forward James Posey, from last year's team. But he admits his team's uneven play sometimes bewilders him.
"I thought that if a few things broke right, would could contend for first place in the West Division," Prosser said. "And we've had some games where we've played very well, but also some others where we've played not so well."
UMass knows that feeling, but the Minutemen have won six of their last nine and have also enjoyed success at the Cincinnati Gardens, where Xavier had won 24 straight before the La Salle debacle.
In 1996 at the Gardens, UMass rallied for a 78-74 overtime victory on the way to the Final Four. In 1998, the Minutemen won 73-62 against an Xavier team that was 15-5 entering that game, and later went on to win the Atlantic 10 tournament.
It's almost a shame these teams, which play in different Atlantic 10 divisions, meet only once a year. Since Xavier joined the conference in 1995, all five meetings have been memorable.
There have been three overtime games, including Xavier's 87-84 win in 1997. That was the only loss UMass suffered over a 12-game stretch.
Another game, the 78-77 UMass win at the Mullins Center last season, went into double overtime. And it was Xavier that officially ended the Minutemen's run of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances at seven and postseason bids at nine last year, knocking UMass out of the Atlantic 10 tournament with a 72-68 quarterfinal victory.
The series is also facinating because the teams are a study in contrasts. While UMass relies on defense, Xavier loves to open up the game, and even with the loss of so much talent from last year, it's not much different this season.
Four Musketeers are scoring in double figures — guards Maurice McAfee (13.9 points per game) and Lloyd Price (13.5), swingman Darnell Williams (11.7) and West (11.1).
Williams is back after missing all of last season with knee surgery.
Xavier is scoring 74.6 points a game to UMass' 67.7. But fast-break basketball carries risk, too, as the Kansas game showed.
INCINNATI, Ohio - Only seven games separate the University of Massachusetts from the end of the regular season.
With goals of a bye in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament and hopes of postseason play beyond the conference, the Minutemen will have to play well on the road. Beginning at noon today against Xavier in Cincinnati, five of UMass' final seven games will take place away from the Mullins Center.
For some teams, this might be a daunting prospect, but for UMass it could be a positive.
Compared with a 5-5 home record and a 2-2 mark in neutral-site games, the Minutemen's 5-3 record in hostile buildings looks pretty good.
"On the road we don't have anybody in the crowd cheering for us," senior guard Monty Mack began. "When you hear the crowd going against you, that makes you want to play harder to try to show them that we came here to play. That's why I think we're a very good team on the road."
UMass coach Bruiser Flint expanded on Mack's response.
"On the road I think they just take the bunker mentality. We have to do this together or we're going to be in trouble," he said. "We just keep playing hard because you know everybody is against you. At home if we struggle, I think at times we feel we're letting people down."
UMass being a good road team isn't enough to make Xavier nervous. The Musketeers are 9-1 at home in their final season playing in Cincinnati Gardens before moving to the Cintas Center next year. Prior to losing to La Salle, Xavier had a 24-game home winning streak, among the nation's longest.
Before that game, the last team to beat the Musketeers on their home floor was the Minutemen, who prevailed 73-62 during the 1997-98 season.
Since Xavier joined the A-10, UMass is 2-0 in Cincinnati Gardens.
"We've done the right things to beat them," Flint said. "We've always had good matchups with Xavier, but they've been (tough) games. We've always gone down to the wire."
On the cover of the Xavier media guide is a logo with the phrase, "Going to Xtremes." It proved prophetic, as X has spent time at both extremes this season.
The peak came early, a 66-64 win over No. 1 Cincinnati on Dec. 18 amid a five-game winning streak that had Musketeer fans talking about a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
January and the Atlantic 10 slate yanked Xavier unceremoniously back to earth. After barely beating a struggling Rhode Island team, 78-75, the Musketeers lost a close game at Dayton (76-72) and then fell to perennial also-ran Duquesne, 85-78.
But rock bottom came on Jan. 23. Amid rumors of a breakdown in team chemistry, Xavier absolutely collapsed, falling to a poor La Salle team, 80-49. That game produced head shaking around the conference.
"La Salle was bad against us," Flint said. "But when they get it going, they can play with anybody and they were on fire against Xavier."
Heading into Saturday's game, the Musketeers have bounced back a bit. They've won three of their last four as they try to overcome their 4-5 league record and climb back into the A-10 West race.
"They're a good team and they've only lost one game at home, so what can you say?" Flint asked. "They've got a chance to make some ground up in the conference."
Four Xavier players are averaging double figures, led by point guard Maurice McAfee (13.9), who also leads the team with 4.3 assists per game.
George Washington freshman SirValiant Brown leads the conference in scoring, but according Flint, Xavier's David West is the league's No. 1 newcomer.
"I think West is the best freshman in the league," Flint said. "I know SirValiant Brown scores a lot of points but ... West is leading the league in rebounds. He scores. When he gets in foul trouble and is out of the game, they struggle."
West is averaging an A-10 best 9.0 boards per game.
hen Xavier joined the Atlantic 10 Conference in 1995-96, Massachusetts was the league's marquee team.
John Calipari was the coach. Marcus Camby was the star. The Minutemen were national-championship contenders.
“They were, at that time, the standard, the measuring stick for the league,” Xavier coach Skip Prosser said. “So we challenged ourselves every year to be able to compete with them, and if we can compete with them, then we can compete with anyone in the league.”
Oh, how they've competed.
|UMass at Xavier|
• When: Noon today
Three of the games have gone into overtime, including when the Minutemen were ranked No.1. Four have been decided by four points or less. UMass has won at Xavier; Xavier has won at UMass.
“They've built their program around three things,” said XU assistant Jeff Battle, who has scouted the Minutemen every year since XU joined the league. “Toughness, defense and rebounding. They're going to bring those three things every night.”
Bruiser Flint is now the coach, in his fourth year. Monty Mack is the star, averaging 19.2 points — second in the Atlantic 10. The Minutemen, however, are not on the national scene as much. They are 12-10 and, like Xavier, fighting for an opportunity to get an NCAA bid.
On Jan.6, UMass lost its third straight game and fell to 6-7. Southern Illinois and Boston College defeated the Minutemen at the Puerto Rico Holiday Classic, with BC winning by 24 points.
But the Minutemen recently have turned things around, winning four of their past six; the only losses were to 19th-ranked Temple and No.18 Texas.
Mack leads UMass with 46 steals and 64 3-pointers, 45 more than any teammate. Senior Chris Kirkland is averaging 15.4 points. In two games against Xavier last season, he averaged 23.5 points.
“Everything's going to run through those guys,” Prosser said.
Mack averaged 19.5 points against the Musketeers last season. Darnell Williams will start out guarding him today.
“You always have to be aware of where he is on the floor. You can't let him explode and get 30,” Battle said of Mack.
UMass has improved because more players are contributing, which means opponents have to stop more than Mack and Kirkland.
Sophomore guard Shannon Crooks, a transfer from St.John's, is averaging 10.6 points. Junior Kitwana Rhymer, a spot player last season, is averaging 8.2 rebounds and 8.2 points in conference play.
Flint's first team, in 1996-97, was 6-9 before winning 10 of its next 11 and earning an NCAA berth.
“We've still got a ways to go; we've still got to get some consistency,” Flint said. “If Kit gets in foul trouble, then we struggle, because we don't rebound the ball great.
“We struggled early. But, hey, it's a long season. I told the guys as long as we keep on working hard and we keep on improving, then we'll have our chances at the end.”
Xavier continues to worry about itself, and Prosser continues to be in search of seeing his team play the same way for 40 minutes.
There are stretches of games and practices where Xavier plays “great,” Prosser said, but it doesn't sustain it.
“We just have to go possession by possession,” Prosser said.