f there is ever a good time for the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team to play Connecticut, maybe tonight is it.
There's never a good time to play the Huskies in Storrs, but the Minutemen will try, anyway, in the renewal of one of New England's most storied rivalries.
As usual, UMass (1-0) is considered a decided underdog. And as usual, Minutemen coach Bruiser Flint is saying not to count his team out, even as it steps into the hostility of Gampel Pavilion against UConn (2-1), the defending national champion.
Flint was encouraged by Saturday night's opening 85-77 win at Iona. But he also knows that tonight's test is a lot to ask of a team that is incorporating three new players (Shannon Crooks, Micah Brand and JoVann Johnson) into its rotation, and was without starters Monty Mack and Mike Babul for almost the entire preseason.
"When you lose Richard Hamilton and Ricky Moore (from last year's team), you've lost some great players, but UConn is UConn," Flint said. "They keep bringing in the guys."
The Huskies' returnees include center Jake Voskuhl, guards Khalid El-Amin and Albert Mouring, and forwards Kevin Freeman of Springfield and Edmund Saunders. The most promising newcomer is 6-foot-10 Ajou Deng, who sat out his freshman year for academic reasons.
The cast was regarded highly enough for UConn to be ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press preseason poll. Then the Huskies lost 70-68 to Iowa in their opener, and fell to eighth last week.
"Iowa just elevated its game against UConn, and you can do that in a game like that," he said. "We did it against North Carolina in the Preseason NIT (in 1993). I don't think it changes how UConn looks at this game, but it might have woken them up."
UMass will have the services of Mack and Babul tonight, and both are essential. Mack missed most of the preseason with a foot injury but scored 21 points Saturday, and as the team's best backcourt defender, may draw the task of guarding El-Amin — especially if fully healthy.
Babul generally draws the opponent's best scorer, especially when that player is a forward. He has been sidelined by a bad back, but shut down Iona forward Tariq Kirksay in the second half Saturday, and says he's ready for more.
"I've been recovering pretty well," the 6-foot-6 senior said. "I was surprised I played as much as I did against Iona, though. I played the first three or four minutes and came out, so I thought Bruiser might save me for UConn."
But Flint couldn't afford that luxury, and Babul played 30 minutes. Not only was his defensive work crucial, he looked comfortable in the up-tempo offense.
It took Saturday's first half for the new players, injured players and veterans to blend their games. But they did so in the second half, and the Minutemen rallied from behind with a 32-13 run.
UMass is committed to a running game, and the Minutemen followed through against Iona. UMass may not run with the same abandon against UConn, sticking to its game plan but picking its spots more carefully against one of America's best up-tempo teams.
But this UMass team still looks more effective when it runs, and to run at all, the Minutemen will need to rebound. That means their big men will have to avoid the foul trouble that plagued them at Iona.
aving been through something quite similar recently, we could almost sympathize with these guys, if we didn't look at them with such a mixture of loathing and envy.
The warning signs are there, whether the University of Connecticut men's basketball team, its fans with the goo-goo eyes and its loyal media chooses to look at them or not. Fancy cars. Friends and associations whose involvement causes trouble. Questions about whether this action or that is simply bad judgment, or a violation of NCAA rules.
For the past month or so, the defending national champions been defending themselves, mostly over questions regarding the improper use of cars. First Jake Voskuhl and the Lexus, then Khalid El-Amin and the Land Rover — and suddenly UConn, which has had occasional problems in the past three years, finds itself accelerating toward an even less savory reputation.
Tonight, the Huskies are home against UMass, another program that knows a little about success, pressure and trouble. In 1994, a grades scandal rocked the campus, and the institutional stance was that it was the fault of others — mostly the media, which disclosed information that was considered confidential.
Eventually, though, UMass had to confront the fact that much of the problem was its own, and could be fixed. And there hasn't been a problem with academic integrity since then.
Then came the Marcus Camby mini-drama, which stained the entire school. Shannon Crooks, for instance, originally chose St. John's because he was worried about UMass going on probation.
UConn, like UMass, is finding that the pressure to maintain success is far greater than the pressure to attain it. This is especially true in a state whose residents walk the streets like zombies, chanting their university's name.
The Huskies are coached by Jim Calhoun, who spent his entire life defying his many critics. Now he presides over arguably the best program in the United States, and he is also the king of his own state.
He's done this by recruiting and coaching great players in an intensely competitive setting, and he's in no mood to voluntarily dismantle it or stand by as others try. There is little incentive to do more than varnish over the chips appearing in the woodwork.
That's because to most fans, the issue is not about propriety, but about jeopardizing stars' eligibility. And so to them, these cases are distractions, not red flags.
In El-Amin's case, the player was portrayed in Connecticut's media as the victim of heartless public accusation. The Huskies were lauded in one headline for "weathering the storm," as if the storm had not at least partly been created by their own actions.
The argument for El-Amin (and before him, Voskuhl) was that according to NCAA rules, he was totally innocent. Fine, except that El-Amin's own words suggest a man not technically guilty, but not completely blameless, either.
"He (Calhoun) definitely told me I need to be more careful with things," El-Amin said. Left unsaid was what he had to be more careful about, if in fact he hadn't done anything wrong.
El-Amin might be a decent guy who, in the technical sense, did not break the rules. But the warning signs are flashing for the team that plays UMass tonight.
Right now, the signs are small and hazy enough so that the Huskies can act as if it's the fault of others, or act like they're not even there. There's another NCAA title to be won, after all.
But any program that keeps flirting with the border line of trouble risks eventually crossing it. And when that happens, there's a price to be paid for returning.
Ask UMass. You can pay that price now, or you can pay it later. But the price later, rest assured, will be much, much bigger.
TORRS - Bruiserball is but a distant memory.
The banging style UMass coach James ``Bruiser'' Flint liked in the past has given way to the running game.
With strong interior players Lari Ketner and Ajmal Basit gone, Flint, a former standout guard at St. Joseph's (Pa.), has a backcourt that can put up some numbers.
Against the No. 8 Huskies (2-1), Flint and the Minutemen (1-0) will see how successful their style is against a program that has been the epitome of good guard play.
Throw in the fact there is a little rivalry between the teams and that UConn hasn't seen a team like the Minutemen in this young season, and it could make for an interesting matchup in the MassMutual U Game tonight at sold-out Gampel Pavilion.
``They're not like Iowa, with the swagger and bravado about them,'' UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. ``And they don't have the skill all around as Duke does, but they're older than Duke. They're not like Vermont. And they're not like the two exhibition teams. They're like nobody we've played yet. So it will be very interesting. It'll be more like some of the real tough Big East teams that we play. Talented guards with some good components.''
So UConn's backcourt could be challenged.
``I think it's definitely a big test for us knowing that their backcourt is going to take the majority of shots and try to lead them to a win,'' Khalid El-Amin said. ``But at the same time, our backcourt has a lot of pride, so it's definitely going to be a battle of the backcourts. It's definitely going to be a big game and a measure of where we are right now because they're going to come in with some intensity, some energy, and we have to match that.''
The Minutemen took 69 shots in an 85- 77 victory over Iona Saturday night, with 38 shots and 43 points coming from their three-pronged guard attack of Monty Mack (6 of 19, 21 points), St. John's transfer Shannon Crooks (5 of 10, 11 points) and Jonathan DePina (4 of 9, 11 points).
Mack, whom Calhoun said is among the best guards the Huskies will face all year, did not start because he is recovering from a stress fracture, but played 31 minutes. He was 4-for-11 from three- point range.
The Minutemen like an uptempo style, which in most cases is fine with Calhoun. But not this time.
``I'd always rather get the game at our pace,'' Calhoun said. ``I don't like necessarily facing a team that has good guards and wants to play like we do.''
The 6-foot-3, Derby-born Mack, who started all 30 games last season and averaged 18.1 points, is the key.
``He just has kind of a free rein and he's a terrific player,'' Calhoun said. ``That will be an important matchup for us.''
Mack, who had 10 points on 3-of-10 shooting in last season's 59-54 loss to UConn at the Mullins Center, will be Albert Mouring's assignment.
El-Amin will probably have Crooks or DePina, a 5-9 junior.
``I can play defense and I'm willing to play defense,'' El-Amin said. ``You know, it's going to be a good game. They have to stop me and they have to stop our backcourt, too. So I'm not really caught up in just trying to stop them, because they have to stop us also.''
El-Amin has been hard to stop.
He's averaging a team-high 20.7 points and is coming off a 28-point game, two short of his career high, against Vermont on Friday. Mouring is settling in and is averaging 12.7.
If the backcourt matchup is a wash, team defense will take center stage. Although the Huskies held Vermont to 30.1 shooting, they still need to cover up some holes.
ow we know where all of those unused billions from the state budget have gone.
Connecticut may have lost a football stadium and an NFL franchise last winter, but it did win a men's basketball national title. The result is a glossy, pull-out-the-stops media guide for the men's team that is 400 pages long and weighs more than a year's supply of sneakers.
The team is 2-1, with a season-opening loss to Iowa up for discussion.
But UMass coach Bruiser Flint doesn't care. He doesn't want anyone on his 1-0 team thinking that tonight, at UConn's Gampel Pavilion, might actually be the perfect time to play the Huskies.
Even if it is quite possibly true.
``They're gonna be good, no matter what, so we might as well play them now,'' he said. ``And they're going to really be good in Gampel. (Playing at Iona) was good in terms of getting us ready for UConn, because Iona is a very tough place to play.''
That's also where the comparisons end. The Minutemen were able to survive Kitwana Rhymer's foul trouble and the subsequent panic it created when UMass was unable to protect the defensive glass.
Richard Hamilton may be gone, but Jake Voskuhl and Kevin Freeman are still on hand. If they can shut down Elton Brand, you don't even have to ask about what's in store for Rhymer, Chris Kirkland, et al.
But if the Minutemen have shown a true early flair anywhere, it's in the backcourt. Monty Mack, with only three days of practice under his belt after a five-week recovery from a broken foot, came off the bench to score 21 points against the Gaels.
And Jonathan DePina has stepped up quite nicely at point guard while his old AAU teammate, Shannon Crooks, attempts to work into a new system.
Thus far, Crooks has been somewhat cautious, and extremely considerate of his teammates when making decisions with the ball. But Flint knew he could count on control, as well as intelligent play, from Crooks.
The difference Saturday was that DePina showed many of the same qualities, while hitting two big shots - a 3-pointer to tie the game early in the second half, and a cool up-faking jumper from the baseline that sealed the game with 1:14 left.
DePina nearly transferred to Northeastern last summer because of a desire to play a larger role. That may now be coming through in the one place the junior least expected to find it.
``Last year, if he had attempted that up-fake shot, he would have thrown it away, or kicked it, or something,'' said Flint. ``I'm not kidding - that's the sort of thing he would do. But I think he has really matured. He's gotten older, and he's more comfortable.''
Though Flint probably will return Mack to the starting lineup tonight, next to Crooks, DePina's role will continue to grow.
The ante gets increased tonight, too. Khalid El-Amin, for all of his off-court notoriety, also still is in a Huskies uniform. It's right there in that Cadillac of a media guide, with El-Amin's own ``little'' three-page bio.
The Minutemen will try to avenge last season's loss to the Huskies, when they held UConn to a season-low in points but still lost, 59-54. El-Amin scored 12 points in that contest while Mack tallied 10 for the Minutemen.
TORRS, Conn. - When University of Massachusetts coach Bruiser Flint watched the then-No. 1 Connecticut men's basketball team struggle against and eventually fall to Iowa, 70-68, in a season-opening tournament on Nov. 11, the defending national champs reminded him of another team.
"I remember that year (1993) when we played (defending champion) North Carolina in the Preseason NIT. They came out and thought they were going to roll over the top of us," Flint said. "We just played at a high level that night and it woke them up. Sometimes guys come out and they think, 'Hey, we're the national champs and we're going to roll over people.' "
The Minutemen upended the defending champion Tar Heels, 91-86, in overtime that night. Almost exactly a year later, UMass dispatched defending champion Arkansas, 104-80, giving UMass a 2-0 record against defending champs in the 1990s.
Tonight at 7 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion, Flint's Minutemen will take a lesson from Iowa and from their own recent history as they try to upset the now No. 8-ranked Huskies in the fourth annual U-Game.
An upset would have the added dimension of completing a three-game sports series sweep for UMass. Friday the Minuteman hockey team beat UConn, 7-4, and Saturday the UMass football team beat UConn, 62-20.
Tonight also will mark the final U-Game for UConn's Kevin Freeman, who is a Springfield native.
"It's always big for me to win that game because I live in Massachusetts and a win over Massachusetts is always a big deal," Freeman said. "It's still the U-Game. Each time you play a team like UMass, who is very confident. It's a tough game to play. Every time you step into an arena with another team, you have to respect their program, especially UMass, because they're right across the border. I'm happy it's in Gampel and hopefully we'll do well."
Freeman's play has been one of the rare things that UConn coach Jim Calhoun has been happy with so far this season.
"Kevin is solid. He gives you defense. He makes plays and understands what we want to do," Calhoun said. "He's as focused on us trying to win as anybody."
Minuteman senior Mike Babul likely will guard Freeman.
"I've been playing against Kev since I was, like, 13," Babul said. "He's always been a good player and we've had some good battles over the years. He's a real strong player. It'll be a good challenge."
After falling to the Hawkeyes, UConn rebounded the following night and beat Duke, 71-66, and then thrashed Vermont, 89-52, last Friday. Despite losing two cogs from last year's champion, the Huskies have reloaded, according to Flint.
"When you lose Richard Hamilton and Ricky Moore, you lost a lot, but they're still going to be good," he said. "UConn is UConn. They just keep bringing them in."
Leading the Huskies is point guard Khalid El-Amin. Since last season, the junior has been involved in some controversy off the court, but has kept it from shaking his play on it. He scored 28 against the Catamounts Friday.
Senior center Jake Voskuhl, guard Albert Mouring and Edmund Saunders round out the Husky starting five.
The Huskies have won 16 of the last 17 games against UMass and have won 65 straight non-conference games against schools from New England. Still, Calhoun is concerned about tonight's game.
"I told the kids from a competitive standpoint and a rivalry standpoint that this is like a big-league game for us," said Calhoun, who took note of UMass' win over Iona Saturday. "They're a very different team. That was an impressive win. I don't know if they would have done that last year. They're not like anyone we've played so far so it should be an interesting game."
UMass senior guard Monty Mack agreed.
"I think it's going to be a good game. We know they're going to come at us with their best. We just have to come at them with our best," Mack said. "Whoever battles the most is going to come out with a victory."