ROVIDENCE -- Jerry DeGregorio tells a story about an incident during a timeout in the last game his University of Rhode Island basketball team played, a loss at George Washington. It makes a point about his team, and, especially, about Tavorris Bell.
``At one point, (Chris) Monroe drove by Tavorris for a basket. I jumped in his face,'' the coach said. ``I grabbed him and said, `Are you tired?' He said he was.''
The incident helps explain what Bell and the other key players for the Rams -- Luther Clay, Zach Marbury and Tip Vinson -- have had to deal with this season.
Because of the team's lack of depth, all are averaging between 32 and 35 minutes. They have enough of a challenge trying to work on offense without a true point guard. It becomes an even bigger challenge to play well on defense, even though they get little or no rest.
On an individual level, the incident also makes a point about Bell's defense. Specifically, that the lapse was so unusual. Bell's defense has been one of the highlights of this tough season for URI.
With the worst record in the Atlantic 10, the Rams do not have many candidates for postseason honors. Zach Marbury has a shot at the rookie team, although with so many good first-year players this season that will be difficult. Bell, the team's best all-around player, has to be considered for second- or third-team all-conference honors.
The strongest case can be made, though, for Bell on the all-defensive team.
Bell will face another major challenge in that department tonight when the Rams (5-21, 2-11 in the Atlantic 10) host Massachusetts (14-11, 8-4) in a 7:30 contest at the Civic Center. Bell likely will spend much of his night chasing Monty Mack, the Minutemen's leading scorer, through the maze of picks UMass sets to free Mack for shots.
DeGregorio has not had many hands he could deal from strength, but asking Bell to cover the opposing team's best player is one area where he likes what he has.
``Tavorris Bell is the best defensive player in the Atlantic 10,'' DeGregorio says of his 6-foot-6 sophomore. What makes him even better than some others, DeGregorio feels, is Bell's versatility.
``He can guard the 1, 2, 3 or 4. Sometimes he could even guard the 5,'' DeGregorio says. ``Tavorris just plays . . . He competes so hard and he's such a prideful kid. He's gotten frustrated at times this season because other teams take shots at him. In terms of his play, he's the player we're going to depend on next year.''
``I take a lot of pride in it,'' Bell said of his defense. ``It pains me to see people score. It really offends me. It gets me so angry. I can't stand for a person to score. For me, to pressure somebody and get a steal (he has 34 this season), it makes my day.''
Bell is not afraid to campaign for a spot on the defensive team.
``Last year I thought I deserved it,'' he says. ``But if I don't get it, it's no big deal for me. I'm out here to try and give the effort for my teammates, my coaches. That's what I'm looking for -- recognition from them.''
Bell and everyone else on the URI team will have to come up with a huge effort tonight to prevent the team from falling to its second 10-game losing streak of the season. Offense is the prime concern.
UMass has a two-time all-conference defensive selection of its own in North Attleboro's Mike Babul. DeGregorio praises the way all the Minutemen play defense.
``There are two temas in our conference that guard you really well in the halfcourt,'' DeGregorio says. ``One is Temple, one is UMass with its man-to-man. UMass doesn't do anything tricky. But they play you solid, play you tough, play you hard. Those are the kinds of teams we've struggled against this year because we have a hard time scoring.''
f all the reasons for the University of Massachusetts to win tonight's men's basketball game against Rhode Island, the most compelling is also the most simple.
Winning would be good if only because losing would be so terrible. With a two-game winning streak and a difficult schedule forthcoming, UMass (14-11, 8-4 Atlantic 10 Conference) is off to the Providence Civic Center to play Rhode Island (5-21, 2-11), the conference's worst team.
The Rams have lost nine straight, a skid that began at the Mullins Center exactly one month ago. UMass' 89-50 win was the most lopsided in coach Bruiser Flint's four-year career.
"But they're playing better lately," Flint said diplomatically. "I think this will be a lot better game."
That's true to a point. Rhode Island has lost nine games by more than 10 points, including two by more than 40 and the UMass game by 39. Their first six losses in the current streak were by an average of 29.2 points.
But the last three have been by four, 10 and 18. Modest improvement, but improvement nonetheless.
"We've competed in the last three games, being in a position to win with six or seven minutes left," Rhode Island coach Jerry DeGregorio said. "At this point, that's all I can ask."
After scoring 49 points in two games last week, UMass guard Shannon Crooks shared Atlantic 10 player-of-the-week honors with La Salle forward Rasual Butler. Like Rhode Island's Zach Marbury, Crooks is in his first season as his team's point guard, and both players are primarily scorers who have needed time to adapt to their teams and A-10 play.
"I think Shannon has had to find his own way, his own niche," Flint said. "Players like him sometimes think they can get closer to the basket, and in the beginning, he was running people over, and turning the ball over.
"But he's playing much better now," Flint said after Crooks put up his two highest-scoring college games (29 and 20 points) last week. "I think he's more comfortable with his own abilities, and with what we want him to do."
For UMass, a 15th victory would clinch a winning regular season, and the team would exceed last season's victory total.
It would extend the current winning streak to three, matching the season high. And it would put UMass four games over .500 for the first time in two years.
UMass is tied with St. Bonaventure in the race for second place in the Atlantic 10 East, which carries with it a first-round bye in the A-10 tournament. Both teams visit Temple this week St. Bonaventure Thursday and UMass Saturday.
The Minutemen then face games against George Washington at home and St. Bonaventure on the road a challenging finish to the regular season.
Rhode Island lost 99-81 to George Washington Saturday. DeGregorio doesn't think points will come as easily against UMass.
"There are two teams in our league that really guard you Temple with its matchup zone and UMass with its man-to-man," he said. "UMass doesn't do anything fancy, but they really make it hard for you in the half-court game."
To counter that, DeGregorio said Rhode Island will seek to grab a few baskets in transition. But the Rams are last in the league in scoring, total rebounds, rebounding differential and turnover margin, and the Rams are tied for last with UMass in free-throw percentage.
The Rams are also next to last in overall defense, field-goal defense and assists.
MHERST - As Rhode Island staggers to the finish of a long and mostly unpleasant season, it's easy to forget that the Rams are actually the defending Atlantic 10 men's basketball champions.
It seems like years ago that Lamar Odom raced around the Spectrum court in Philadelphia, arms raised in ecstasy after sinking the game winning 3-pointer to upset Temple in the conference final and vault the Rams into the NCAA Tournament.
Since then Odom has become a Los Angeles Clipper and Rhode Island has become college basketball's version of the Clippers.
For Rhody, the 1999-2000 campaign is three regular season games and probably one A-10 Tournament game from being over. There is little left to play for except a chance to knock off New England rival University of Massachusetts, a chance it will get tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Providence Civic Center.
"This isn't just a regular game," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "It's UMass-Rhody. Next to Temple, they're our biggest rival in the league. You know they're going to be ready to play."
"We definitely have to be concerned," said sophomore point guard Shannon Crooks. "They have pretty much no chance of going to postseason play, so you know this is a big game for them because they can hurt our chances. We just have to go out there and do what we have to do."
The Minutemen (14-11, 8-4 Atlantic 10) come into the game with a chance to assure themselves a season of at least .500 with a win.
The Rams (5-21, 2-11) enter the game on a nine game losing streak that started when the Minutemen dismantled them 89-50 exactly a month ago. It isn't their longest losing streak of the season however as URI dropped 10 in succession from Dec. 3 to Jan. 11.
"We embarrassed them the first time," Flint said. "They got some pride, so we know they're going to be out there ready to play."
Also ready to play, will be UMass guard Monty Mack, who will return to the starting lineup after coming off the bench due to a lingering flu on Saturday.
"He's still coughing," Flint said. "He's getting over it slowly, but surely."
URI coach Jerry DeGregorio was concerned about his team's ability to score against the Minutemen.
"There are two teams in this league that really guard you," he said. "Temple with their match-up and UMass with their man-to-man. They have such a fundamentally strong man-to-man. UMass is a really hard team to run halfcourt sets against and we have trouble with teams like that.
"They are really strong, physical and they come right at you," DeGregorio continued. "Their defense dictates tempo. We hope to get some transition baskets to make it easier on ourselves."
Sophomore Zach Marbury, the younger brother of New Jersey Nets point guard Stephon Marbury, leads the Rams with 15.4 points per game followed closely by Tavorris Bell who is averaging 14.3. Luther Clay is URI's top rebounder averaging eight boards per game to go along with 12.4 points.
The game will be the final one at the Providence Civic Center for UMass senior Mike Babul, who hails from just up the road in North Attleborough.
"I just want to go in and get a win and play well," Babul said. "I'll have a lot of family there."