INCINNATI In Skip Prosser's estimation, the University of Massachusetts is "a good inside-outside" men's basketball team.
That hasn't stopped the Minutemen from seeing their season turned upside down, and tonight they'll confront Prosser and red-hot Xavier, which hopes to send a cautiously encouraged UMass team back on the wrong track.
"They have a very good inside-outside component," said Prosser, the Xavier coach whose team takes a six-game winning streak into the 7:30 game at the Cintas Center, Xavier's first-year campus facility.
"Monty Mack is one of the best guards in the country, and every time you make a mistake on him, he makes you pay," Prosser said. "Last year, we 'held' him to 32 points. They also have four or five very solid post players."
UMass (3-9, 1-0 Atlantic 10) has had a taste of success, too. Saturday's 76-60 win over George Washington snapped a three-game losing streak and reawakened the Minutemen's flagging optimism.
But they won't have many tougher challenges than what they face tonight. Xavier (11-2, 2-0) was the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic 10, and the Musketeers have lived up the hype.
"We still have a long way to go," Prosser said. "I don't think we're rebounding the ball that well, we stand around too much and settle for too many quick 3-pointers. But we are getting better."
Is UMass? The Minutemen outscored George Washington 51-23 in Saturday's second half.
It came against an opponent that was tired from a road trip that included stops in Hawaii and North Carolina. But it also encouraged UMass to believe it could put its terrible first six weeks behind it.
Tonight's test is potentially much more revealing, if only because it appears so much harder.
Xavier's traditional fast-break style has been toned down a bit, thanks to a better half-court game that takes advantage of David West. The 6-foot-8 sophomore center has emerged as an early candidate for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year.
West is averaging 15.9 points and 10.6 rebounds per game, and had a career-high 25 points to go with 14 boards in Sunday's 81-66 win over La Salle. Maurice McAfee had 12 points and a career-high 12 assists in that game, and the 6-foot senior guard earned A-10 Player-of-the-Week honors after averaging 19 points in his last two games.
McAfee missed 36 of 43 shots from 3-point range in his first 10 games. But in his last three, he's hit 10 of 19.
Added to the mix is 6-5 junior swingman Lloyd Price, who has recovered from a preseason ankle injury, 6-8 junior forward Kevin Frey (11.5 ppg., 5.8 rpg.), and 6-4 freshman Romain Sato (11.1 ppg.). Xavier is 6-0 since Price (8.6 ppg.) returned to the starting lineup.
The low post may provide a compelling battle between West and UMass center Kitwana Rhymer. West led the Atlantic 10 in rebounding with 9.1 per game as a freshman, and this year he's leading again, with even better numbers. He's also shooting 58.7 from the floor in his last seven games.
He figures to test Rhymer, who dominated George Washington with 11 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots Saturday.
Rarely known for its defense, Xavier also ranks second to Temple on the A-10 defensive chart, allowing 61.8 points per game. And to make tonight's challenge even tougher for UMass, the game at the 10,250-seat Cintas Center is sold out, as is the rest of Xavier's home schedule.
"This is a beautiful place, although I think the Cincinnati Gardens (where Xavier had been playing) produced a more foreboding atmosphere for the visitors," Prosser said. "It's still a beautiful place, though."
INCINNATI - Coming off its best win of the season, a 76-60 victory over George Washington Saturday, the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team will need to raise its play even higher tonight if it is to get its first winning streak.
At 7:30 p.m. the Minutemen (3-9, 1-0 A-10) will take on Xavier, perhaps the hottest team in the Atlantic 10 Conference right now.
The Musketeers are 11-2 (2-0 A-10) and enter the game riding a six-game winning streak. The run began on Dec. 14 when Xavier upset crosstown rival Cincinnati at the Shoemaker Center, 69-67, in what seems to be becoming an annual event.
The win coincided with Lloyd Price's return to the Musketeer starting lineup. Price was a preseason A-10 first-team selection, but suffered an ankle injury in the preseason that limited his effectiveness. But he's healthy now. Against the Bearcats he hit the winning shot, and the Musketeers have been rolling ever since.
"We're lucky," Xavier coach Skip Prosser said. "Losing Lloyd when we lost him was tough. But now he's back and he's a consistent force in the lineup."
One player who has been steadily impressive all season is sophomore center David West. He leads the A-10 in rebounding with 10.6 boards per game to go along with his team-best 15.9 points per game.
The Minutemen will counter with senior center Kitwana Rhymer, who has been solid lately. He had 11 points and 16 rebounds against GW.
Both coaches said their frontcourts need to stay out of foul trouble.
"They have four big strong post players and that really concerns me," Prosser said.
"We need Kit (Rhymer) to stay on the floor, no matter what," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint. "He's gotta stay out of foul trouble, that's the bottom line."
The Minutemen and Musketeers both feature guards who have overcome early shooting slumps. Xavier senior Maurice McAfee has overcome an early shooting slump and has been difficult to defend. Last year's leading Musketeer scorer has been averaging just 6.9 points per game, but he's dominated in conference play with 26 points against Fordham and 12 points and 12 assists against La Salle.
Minuteman senior Monty Mack shed his early shooting woes with 28 points against the Colonials Saturday.
Despite UMass' record, Prosser isn't taking the Minutemen lightly.
"They've played a very tough schedule and that's why their record is what it is," he said. "They're 3-9, but they're 1-0 in the league, so we're playing for first place in the league."
The game marks UMass' first visit to the Cintas Center, Xavier's new on-campus arena. The home-court advantage the Musketeers enjoyed at the Cincinnati Gardens appears to have carried over, as Xavier is 7-0 in its new home.
In the second half against George Washington, it was the UMass bench players who helped the team win. Still, Flint is sticking with his regular starting lineup of Mack, Rhymer, Micah Brand, Shannon Crooks and Winston Smith, but he's giving them a shorter leash.
"Without question I would (use the bench quickly)," Flint said. "They know it, too."
Flint said the Minutemen probably will continue to use some zone defense, as they have in recent games.
"I guess they've had some problems shooting the ball," Flint said of Xavier. "We'll try to mix it up on them."
ive years ago, a young Xavier team toted a slingshot into its first Atlantic 10 season. When it met Goliath, a top-ranked Massachusetts team en route to a Final Four, XU played with nothing to lose and fell just shy in an overtime classic. Fast forward to tonight.
|UMASS at XAVIER|
When: 7:30 p.m. today
Coach: Bruiser Flint (74-66, fifth year; same overall)
BY THE NUMBERS
The gym shoe's on the other foot.
I felt they were a team that could win the league this year, and I still feel that way, XU coach Skip Prosser said. We can't expect to win without playing our absolute best.
Guarding against overconfidence against UMass is a landmark occasion. This is a program XU studied for how to grow from meek (11 straight losing seasons from 1978-79 through '88-89) to monstrous (averaging 29 victories from '91-92 through '95-96).
A new arena, top-flight coaching and smart recruiting were the keys, and XU carefully copied the blueprints. Reaching 12-2 would match a mark XU reached five times prior, most recently in 1996-97, as its finest after 14 games.
We know if we can keep this up, it can be a special season, senior Reggie Butler said.
UMass is the only team against which XU has a sub-.500 record (2-3) in A-10 regular-season meetings, and these Minutemen were picked third in the A-10. They have played the nation's third-toughest schedule according to the RPI.
UMass showed life last Saturday, beating George Washington 76-60 in its A-10 opener.
This is like a second season for us, Flint said. We didn't play well in the first season, but we're trying to win the A-10.
Doing so may be the only way to save his job. Flint needed a late run to the NIT last year to earn one more season, with the understanding this team had better reach the NCAA Tournament.
I know what I have to do, Flint said. If I don't do it, I know what's going to happen.
UMass' star is senior guard Monty Mack (17.4 ppg), a first-team A-10 pick who scored 32 points last year against XU. But Prosser's equal concern is a Minuteman front line of 6-foot-11 Micah Brand (7.8 ppg) and 6-10 Kitwana Rhymer (8.8 ppg, 7.2 rebounds).
XU has outrebounded opponents by 4.6 per game, second-best in the A-10.
If we only get one shot, especially the way we shoot the ball (a so-so 42 percent), and they get two or three shots, there's no way we'll win, Prosser said.
o doubt about it, Xavier (11-2, 2-0) is riding high after winning their sixth game in a row. On Sunday afternoon X ambushed the LaSalle Explorers (6-7, 0-2) at the Cintas Center, 81-66. And with the Massachusetts Minutemen (3-9, 1-0) coming to town on Tuesday night, it might be on some of the Muskies' minds to take it easy and relax this last week of Christmas vacation. Think again. The George Washington Colonials relaxed, and the Minutemen jumped on them like the revolutionaries crossing the Delaware on Christmas day to slaughter the British, 76-60. The Muskies must not make the same mistake. Relaxation can commence after the triumph in the NCAA finals. Until then, focus will be required in every game.
Focus aside, the Minutemen are certainly struggling this year. If UMass was a disappointment last season, they are an absolute embarrassment to the university this year. Their overall record is the worst in the A-10, rumors are flying about head coach Bruiser Flints job, and the poor quality of their team has even started to affect superstar Monty Mack (16.3 ppg), who averages less points per game and only shoots 30 percent from behind the arc.
While the team is limping into the A-10 schedule, they could prove to be a snake in the grass for X. Guards Monty Mack and Shannon Crooks (10.6ppg) lead the scoring for the Minutemen. On the inside, UMass employs a virtual brigade of height, beginning with 6-10 Kitwana Rhymer (8.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Defraying the load inside are 6-11 Micah Brand (8.2 ppg), 6-8 Jackie Rogers (5.2 ppg), 6-5 Winston Smith (5.0 ppg), 6-8 Eric Williams (4.0 ppg), and 6-8 Ronell Blizzard (1.7 ppg). All will likely get some playing time.
This team is deep where XU is not: inside. UMass relies heavily on the scoring from their guards but expect them to pound the ball inside as often as possible to cause some foul trouble for West, Frey, and Butler.
Needless-to-say, Massachusetts has been losing most of this nightmarish year. However, they are coming off a possible season changing comeback-win over the Colonials. GW was up 37-25 at half and then were clobbered in the second 20 minutes by a score of 51-23. The final score was an astonishing 76-60.
Following the embarrassing loss at Princeton, Xavier has been perfect. On Sunday against LaSalle they seemed to always be in control even though they could not hold a double-digit lead until late. They still appear to be searching for that knock-out punch.
Xavier will make Skip happy and maintain their focus for this Tuesday night game. Look for the Musketeers to utilize their rock in the middle. David West will find it rough in the paint, but he will lead the team once again. Overall, X will play solid defense on Mack and continue to develop their balanced offense around their inside play. XU 80, UMass 63