HILADELPHIA — Beat Temple, and the dormant dream of making the NCAA tournament suddenly becomes possible again.
Beat Temple, and the University of Massachusetts will make some national headlines on the men's college basketball scene. Beat Temple, and that big-time victory which has escaped UMass so far will be theirs. Beat Temple? Nobody beats Temple, at least not in the last six weeks, and just about nobody expects UMass to do it in today's 2 p.m. game at the Liacouras Center, either.
Even the Minutemen haven't said it will happen. But they do suggest it may not be impossible.
"Everybody is ruling us out," freshman center Micah Brand said. "But if we play the way we can play, it will be a game."
For UMass (15-11, 9-4 Atlantic 10), that would be an improvement from Feb. 1, when Temple rolled to a 75-48 win at the Mullins Center. The Owls (21-4, 12-1) are ranked No. 8 in the nation, own a 12-game winning streak and have won their last 21 at home.
They beat top-ranked Cincinnati on the road Sunday, then routed St. Bonaventure 75-58 at home Thursday. That gave UMass a one-game lead over the Bonnies in the race for second place in the Atlantic 10 East.
That spot is worth a first-round bye in the A-10 tournament, something UMass has yet to achieve under Bruiser Flint.
Point guard Shannon Crooks, who is averaging 20.3 points over the last three games, says UMass will be better prepared to attack Temple's matchup zone than it was three weeks ago.
"I learned a lot from that game," Crooks said of his first face-to-face meeting with the Owls, who can clinch the A-10 East with a win today. "They'll give you some outside shots, but they shoot the lanes and try to get you to turn the ball over. But we can't be passive against them — we've got to be aggressive."
The game features three probable all-conference first-team picks in UMass guard Monty Mack and the Owls' Pepe Sanchez and Mark Karcher. Temple coach John Chaney says Sanchez, who has battled injuries to both ankles this season, is the key to the team.
The senior point guard had a career-high 13 assists against St. Bonaventure Thursday, even though Chaney benched him for the last seven minutes for picking up a technical foul. But Flint thinks Karcher, a 6-foot-5 forward, may be at least as valuable because of his scoring ability.
Together, they give Temple a real shot at reaching its first Final Four since 1958. As for Mack, he's coming off a three-game stretch in which he missed one game (Fordham) with the flu, scored 23 against St. Joseph's and then shot 2 for 12 in an ugly 57-37 win over Rhode Island Tuesday.
"Monty wasn't ready to play that game, and he could never get himself going," Flint said of Mack's five-point outing.
But that was against the league's worst team. Today's opponent is the best.
"Monty will be ready," Crooks predicted. "Anyway, when Monty is out there doing his thing, sometimes the other guys get passive, and we can't do that."
"We haven't had Monty to depend on all the time lately, but other guys stepped up," said Brand, who scored a career-high 14 points against Rhode Island. "Now we have to keep that up and also get him back in the equation."
It sounds simple, but playing Temple never is. Only a 57-56 loss at St. Bonaventure last month has denied the Owls an unbeaten A-10 season so far.
Flint has stayed with his usual practice routine, even as his team faces a most unusual foe — and the class of the Atlantic 10.
"If you're not ready for Temple at this time of year," he said, "it's too late to have any of those type of practices."
HILADELPHIA - The conversations among the fans leading up to Saturday's game between the University of Massachusetts and Temple (2 p.m., ESPN) haven't centered around who is going to win.
The basic suspense is just how much is Temple going to win by?
The Owls come in ranked No. 8 nationally only a week after they upset No. 1 Cincinnati, prompting national speculation about Temple's Final Four chances. That combined with the fact the Owls hammered UMass, 75-48, on Feb. 1 has created little optimism among Minuteman fans.
"You have to give Temple credit said UMass coach Bruiser Flint. "Right now they're playing some of the best basketball in the country. It's good to be the underdog. I already told our guys that nobody gives us a shot."
Still that hasn't deterred the players' optimism. Coming off three straight wins, they feel this time could be different.
"We just have to go into the game playing with no pressure on our back, with nothing to lose," said sophomore guard Shannon Crooks. "We have to take it right to them and not be passive on offense."
Freshman center Micah Brand agreed.
"Temple has been on a little roll. They just beat Cincinnati the other night," Brand said. "Now everybody is ruling us out and saying there is no way we can win. But we know if we go and work hard and play the way we know we can play. It'll be a game."
For UMass to have any chance of winning, it will have to be a lot more successful on the boards as Temple outrebounded UMass 48-20 last time.
"We have to rebound," Flint said. "That's the bottom line."
Crooks, who saw Temple's legendary match-up zone for the first time in the teams' first meeting, expects to be more prepared to face it this time.
"I pretty much learned a lot from the last game. Sometimes they give you shots here and there," Crooks said. "They want you to take long distance shots. You try not to turn the ball over. It's a big emphasis on staying patient, but we have to be aggressive as far as taking shots when they're open."
Unlike in some years, where Temple was brilliant on defense and just passable offensively, this Owl squad can score led by Mark Karcher's 16.2 points per game. Karcher is a leading candidate for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year.
His major competition for that honor is his teammate, point guard Pepe Sanchez. The Owl floor general's 7.8 assists per game would be sixth in the nation if he had played in enough games to quality. Sanchez, has been hampered by a foot injury, but has been able to stay on the floor, much to coach John Chaney's relief.
"I just know every game we play, our whole game is hanging on Pepe's back," Chaney said. "And when Pepe's able to play, I know that our kids are capable of giving a much better performance. I just know without him, we really don't stand much of a chance to play high-level basketball."
While Chaney relies on Sanchez, the Minutemen have a similar reliance on Monty Mack, who had just five points against Rhode Island on Tuesday. His teammates fully expected him to bounce back.
"Mont's going to be ready for the game against Temple., We know he's the main guy on the team, once he gets going we can't lay back and expect him to do everything," Crooks said. "We all have to be aggressive and help him out. When Mont is doing his thing, some guys tend to get passive on offense. We can't play that way."
"In the last couple games we haven't really had Monty to depend on, so other people have stepped up and made some big plays for us and scored for us," Brand said. "Now if we can just keep that going and bring Monty back into the equation it will make it even better."
Mack said that the Rhody game is out of his system.
"That game is way behind me," Mack said. "I just have to look forward to Temple. I hope we come up with a big game and a victory."