MERST - Nothing seems to come easily for the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team, and there's one big reason to think tonight's game at Providence won't, either.
At first glance, UMass (6-5) should have the upper hand in the first renewal of this New England series since 1980. Providence (6-5) has already lost to Holy Cross and Central Connecticut and has been picked by many analysts to help bring up the rear in the Big East.
But last week, the Friars were strengthened by the addition of 7-foot-2, 230-pound Karim Shabazz, who became eligible after transferring from Florida State. And suddenly, playing the Friars at the Providence Civic Center is a brand new ballgame.
"He's pretty agile and pretty athletic," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said of Shabazz. "They beat Arkansas (87-81 Thursday) with him. And they like to press you all over the floor."
Shabazz is the tallest player in Friars' history. He scored 25 points with 15 rebounds and 10 blocked shots Monday as the Friars dumped Long Island 79-63.
Without him, the Friars lost 54-50 to Central Connecticut Dec. 21.
With him, Providence beat Arkansas two nights later. Shabazz played 35 minutes in his debut, with 18 points and nine rebounds.
Against Long Island, Shabazz' 10 blocks were the most by a Providence player since Bob Cooper had 10 against Michigan in 1976, and came within two of Marvin Barnes' single-game school mark.
His Monday night performance, which also included a game-high five assists, represented Providence's first triple-double in 22 years. With Shabazz, the Friars seem far more problematical for a UMass team that has struggled with its rebounding.
The Minutemen are playing for the first time since a poor showing at the Puerto Rico Holiday Classic and the last time before Atlantic 10 play opens with a Jan. 6 home game against St. Bonaventure.
The non-conference schedule has gone unevenly, with UMass looking like an evolving team at times, but clumsy at others, especially on offense.
"We played like we were a little tired in Puerto Rico," Flint said. "And we just haven't had all the pieces working together at the same time."
Flint didn't see many bright spots in Puerto Rico, but said sophomore guard Shannon Crooks was beginning to show his offensive skill more consistently.
He also said 6-10 Kit Rhymer, who must deal with Shabazz tonight, played well in a loss to Boston College, despite missing the last 12 minutes with heat exhaustion.
Providence's attack includes 6-6 junior Erron Maxey (17.0 points per game, 9.6 rebounds per game), who had to shoulder much of the inside load until Shabazz became eligible. The Friars have won five of their last seven, despite playing the last two games without 5-9 junior John Linehan, last year's Big East steals leader who ranked fourth in the nation with 3.3 per game.
Linehan has been out with a groin injury, and if he's still out or restricted against UMass, it would limit the Friars' ability to play the pressing defense they prefer.
Size alone won't beat UMass, which not only beat a much taller Florida State team but also outrebounded it. Without Shabazz, the Friars are small, but he's also probably more agile than any of the big men at his former school.
This is the fifth game for UMass against a Big East team this year. The Minutemen split two games with Boston College, lost to Connecticut and beat Villanova.
"We're still looking for guys who can step up and give us enough offense to support Monty Mack (who leads UMass with 19.5 ppg)," Flint said. "We always seem to be missing that one guy."
Ht. PPG RPG
Jon DePina 5-9 4.0 2.5
Monty Mack 6-2 19.5 2.9
Kit Rhymer 6-10 6.9 8.1
Mike Babul 6-6 3.0 2.5
Chris Kirkland 6-6 14.7 5.4
Ronell Blizzard 6-8 2.4 1.8
Shannon Crooks 6-2 9.6 3.5
Micah Brand 6-10 4.7 2.9
PROVIDENCE Ht. PPG RPG
Abdul Mills 6-3 9.8 2.7
Jamaal Camah 6-4 7.4 4.5
Karim Shabazz 7-2 21.5 12.0
David Murray 6-9 8.4 5.9
Erron Maxey 6-6 17.0 9.6
John Linehan 5-9 5.3 4.0
Romuald Augustin 6-7 6.1 2.5
Donta Wade 6-2 8.0 1.5
THE SCOUTING REPORT
PROVIDENCE (6-5): The Friars hope to win a third consecutive game, good for the team's longest win streak of the season. PC hasn't played UMass since 1980 . . . Shabazz is coming off a triple-double, the sixth in school history and first since 1977. Maxey has scored in double figures in all but one game. He's tallied 18 or more points in six of the last seven games. Wade is shooting 43 percent on 3-pointers . . . Linehan may try to play tonight. Friars close out nonconference play Sunday against Fordham.
MASSACHUSETTS (6-5): The Minutemen are off to a sluggish start, losing three of their last five games. Last three games against Division I teams include a victory at Florida State and losses to Southern Illinois and Boston College in Puerto Rico. Both UMass and PC have beaten American-Puerto Rico . . . Mack is a prolific scorer, knocking down 20 or more points in the last four games. Babul returns to starting lineup after coming off the bench the last four games. A top defender, he'll likely match up with Maxey . . . Minutemen are 2-2 against Big East teams, beating BC and Villanova and losing to the Eagles and UConn. UMass plays 10 games against teams that played in last year's NCAA tourney.
WHERE: Civic Center, 7:30 SERIES: PC leads, 21-5. TV-RADIO: WPRO (630); -- KEVIN McNAMARA
ROVIDENCE -- When Mike Babul left North Attleboro High for the University of Massachusetts in 1996, he carried plenty of dreams to Amherst.
As one of the most highly recruited players in the East, Babul dreamed of big wins, NCAA Tournament glory, lots of points and maybe, just maybe, a pro career. At least that's what coaches at schools like North Carolina, Boston College, Connecticut and the others that made him a recruiting priority frequently promised.
Now Babul is a senior at UMass, a co-captain. Tonight he leads the team into the Civic Center to play Providence College, a school he cheered for as a youngster. But Babul is still searching for some of the college basketball riches he's always dreamed about. While he's known as one of the better defensive forwards in the country and has been a part of a host of big wins for the Minutemen, Babul labels his career ``a roller coaster,'' and clearly sounds like someone who wonders why stardom didn't follow him to college.
``I always thought I'd be more of a complete player,'' Babul said. ``It hasn't been what I wanted at all, personally and as a team. We should be better and I should be doing more. It's frustrating at times.''
It's easy to see why.
During his high school career, he averaged more than 20 points per game for three seasons. He owned a dependable outside shot, but also drove to the basket with authority. Those skills and a strong academic backround were what drew college coaches to North Attleboro.
Somehow, those talents never translated to the UMass attack. Some people say Babul can't make open shots. Others say he's lost confidence. Still more insist coach James ``Bruiser'' Flint only wants Babul to pass and set screens on offense. Whatever the reasons, Babul has averaged just 3.0 points this season and 3.9 for his career. In 98 games, he's hit double figures only six times.
``I'm not going to lie. We thought he'd come in and be an offensive player for us,'' Flint said. ``I want him to score more points. Some people say I don't want him to shoot and that's the furthest thing from the truth.''
Flint quickly adds that Babul is a valuable member of the team. Four games ago, Flint replaced Babul in the starting lineup with Ronell Blizzard, another forward who can't score. What he found was the team's defense and rebounding took a step back, so Babul will be back as a starter against the Friars.
``I give Mike credit,'' Flint says. ``He didn't play much as a freshman but he wanted to get on the court and he did that with his defense. He takes away the big guy every night.''
Tonight, the test will be Erron Maxey, the Providence forward who's off to a blazing start (17 ppg). Earlier this season, Babul shadowed UConn's Kevin Freeman and limited him to one field goal in 37 minutes. Last year, he held first-round draft picks Richard Hamilton (11 points) and Ron Artest (9 points) well below their averages.
UMass relies on Babul's defense heavily, if for no other reason than the Minutemen frequently struggle to score. They have scored more than 70 points just thee times. They're coming off a disastrous trip to the Puerto Rico Holiday Classic where losses to Southern Illinois and Boston College were sandwiched around a romp over American-Puerto Rico.
After the Southern Illinois game, an exasperated Flint pointed out the growing frustration with his team when he said, ``They should be ashamed of themselves the way they played tonight. What really gets me is guys get upset when you get on them. They're like `hey, man.' I'm like `Hey, man?' What's that?''
Babul says the season hasn't gone as well as anyone at UMass hoped for but he's not about to give up hope.
ROVIDENCE - Things were looking pretty bleak for the Providence College men's basketball team.
The Friars' 4-5 record included losses at the hands of perennial stinkers Holy Cross and Central Connecticut State. Things had gotten so miserable that coach Tim Welsh's club scored only 43 points against the Crusaders.
But the eligibility fairy waved its magic wand at the right time for Providence. After a sitting out the first semester due to NCAA transfer rules, 7-foot-2 center Karim Shabazz became eligible and the Friars have become a different team.
In his first game back, an 87-81 upset win over Arkansas, Shabazz scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds. His second-game numbers were even more eye-popping, as he recorded a triple-double against Long Island University with 25 points, 15 rebounds and 10 blocked shots.
The University of Massachusetts (6-5) will try to keep Shabazz from continuing his reign of terror tonight when the Minutemen take on the Friars at 7:30 p.m. at the Providence Civic Center in their final game before beginning Atlantic 10 play next week.
"They're a different team with him. The dude just had a triple-double," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint, who admitted that it has been tough to prepare for Shabazz. "We don't have any tape on him, because he's only played the last two games. We've been calling Arkansas trying to get a tape. We have to stay out of foul trouble against him."
Flint, who is usually a strictly man-to-man guy when it comes to defense, conceded that he'll play some zone against Providence to try to limit Shabazz.
"A lot of teams have played them strictly zone," Flint said. "We'll probably play it some."
The addition of Shabazz moves 6-6 Erron Maxey to forward, which gives the Friars a potent rebounding combination. Maxey is averaging 10 rebounds along with 16.8 points per game.
Regular point guard John Linehan was injured against Arkansas and didn't play against Long Island. He is listed as day-to-day. Junior Chris Rogers will start in his place.
After a disastrous trip to Puerto Rico, where the Minutemen went 1-2, Flint is trying to get his team refocused on playing intense defense.
"It's my fault a little bit because I kept stressing offense. We have to get back to guarding the way we can guard," Flint said. "We have to play smarter and tighten up the little things. We make some mistakes that kill us."
To do that he returned senior co-captain Mike Babul to the starting lineup and relegated Ronell Blizzard back to the bench.
"I told Mike he's got to rebound better," Flint said. I know he's got to guard for us and he brings a different attitude about defense."
One player who struggled in Puerto Rico was Chris Kirkland, but the senior power forward vowed to be back at top form.
"I have to get back to doing the things that helped the team out last year," Kirkland said. "Going to the boards, bringing the energy, diving on the floor for loose balls... that type of thing."
Flint said the schedule in Puerto Rico and lack of practice time because of the constant games made it hard to correct problems, making him glad to have his team on semester break to just concentrate on basketball.
"It gives you a chance to get into a lot more detail, because you don't have a lot of restraints on your practice time," Flint said. "In Puerto Rico we always had to go to the next opponent."
"It takes a lot of pressure off with guys not worrying about classes," Kirkland said. "Guys are just focused on basketball."
The game will feature former teammates on opposing sides of the ball. Providence guard Jamal Camah is a product of the Boston Amateur Basketball Club AAU program, where he played with Minutemen Monty Mack, Jonathan DePina and Shannon Crooks.
Fellow Friar freshman guard Abdul Mills played at Milford Academy and for Riverside Church AAU with Minuteman freshman center Micah Brand.