HILADELPHIA - As he walked out of practice on Jan. 5, somebody asked Winston Smith if he had any New Year's resolutions.
Smith smiled and said, "Get some wins."
While most people have long-since given up their quests to lose weight or stop swearing, Smith and his University of Massachusetts teammates have kept their pledge alive, winning five of six games against Atlantic 10 Conference opponents.
In the process, the Minutemen have gained confidence and momentum as they've improved their record to 7-10, 5-1 in the A-10.
Saturday, the stakes get higher. At noon in North Philadelphia, the Minutemen take on rival Temple on national TV (ESPN) with a share of first place in the conference on the line.
Four teams have just one loss in the A-10 heading into weekend action. St. Joseph's (6-1) plays non-league foe Penn and Xavier (5-1) faces Duquesne (1-5), leaving the Minutemen and Owls (5-1) as the league's marquee matchup today.
League posturing isn't all the Minutemen have to gain. After starting the season 2-9, UMass is edging ever closer to .500. Beating Temple would be a big piece of its continued turnaround. More than that, it likely would bring back some fans who gave up on the team in December.
While Temple's vaunted matchup-zone defensive system is the same, this year's squad is considerably different than the unit that won the A-10's regular season and tournament last season.
Gone are star point guard Pepe Sanchez, leading scorer Mark Karcher and UMass-killer Lamont Barnes. With new faces in the lineup, Temple has struggled under the weight of its always brutal nonconference schedule. At 11-9, the Owls are facing the toughest challenge to their 11-year NCAA Tournament streak. The Owls lost seven straight at one point before bouncing back to win six consecutive games.
But after dropping two straight, to St. Joseph's and DePaul last week, the Owls looked formidable in their 90-72 dismantling of Fordham Tuesday.
"Temple is Temple," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "They're going to play the zone. They're tough kids. Last year they were strong and outmuscled us a little bit. This year they're quicker. They looked great against Fordham the other night.
"I told our guys, if we play the way we played (against La Salle Thursday) it's going to be a long afternoon."
UMass senior guard Monty Mack expects the same type of Temple game he's seen his whole career.
"Same team, same zone," Mack said. "All their players know how to play their zone. We need to go out there and take care of the ball and take the shots they give us. If we can do that, it will be a good game."
Playing in Temple's standard three-guard set, junior point guard Lynn Greer leads the team in scoring (16.2 points per game) and assists (4.95 per game). He is joined in the backcourt by fifth-year senior Quincy Wadley (13.0 ppg) and freshman David Hawkins, who was named the A-10's rookie of the week last week.
Against the Temple zone, point-guard play is key. With three games against the Owls under his belt, Shannon Crooks thinks he knows what to expect.
"I'm pretty comfortable knowing what's coming from it," Crooks said. "The times I played against it, I didn't have that many turnovers because Mont (Monty Mack) told me you have to be real careful. You have to penetrate because the penetration will be there."
Junior center Kevin Lyde has played well, averaging 12.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.
"We have to try to get it inside and rebound the ball," Flint said. "Lyde is a good player. They use him more because he, Greer and Wadley are the guys now. He killed us last year getting rebounds on the weak side."
The most interesting matchup may be at power forward. Temple is currently starting 6-foot-10, 290-pound Ron Rollerson, but John Chaney has been frustrated with the big man's play. When he takes him out, undersized Alex Wesby replaces him, standing at just 6-5.
Chaney has been forced to use Rollerson more than he'd like, partly due to the departure of freshman big man Carlton Aaron. After feuding with Chaney, Aaron and former high school All-American Ronald Blackshear both decided to transfer.
NOTE: Bruiser Flint is 11-9 as a head coach in his hometown of Philadelphia, where he starred at Episcopal High School and St. Joseph's. He's 1-3 at Temple.
HILADELPHIA — Former stars Pepe Sanchez, Mark Karcher and Lamont Barnes are gone. The team that remains lost seven straight games at one point, the first time that has happened in coach John Chaney's 19 years at Temple University.
The Owls have been getting by with a six-man playing rotation, and while a 12th straight NCAA tournament appearance seems probable, it is far from assured. More so than at any time in recent years, it looks like the Owls can be had.
But when the University of Massachusetts takes its three-game winning streak into the Liacouras Center for today's noon game, the Minutemen will still be facing the team by which all others in the Atlantic 10 Conference are measured.
"Same Temple team, same zone defense," UMass guard Monty Mack said. "We have to take the shots they give us, but taking care of the ball will be the key."
UMass (7-10, 5-1 Atlantic 10) and Temple (11-9, 5-1) are jockeying for position in a tight A-10 race. St. Joseph's leads with a 6-1 mark, with Xavier (5-1) right there, too.
The UMass turnaround since conference play began has been remarkable, but coach Bruiser Flint sharply criticized his team's play in Thursday's 62-58 win over La Salle.
"We were horrible," Flint said. "If we play like that against Temple, we're in for a long, long afternoon."
The Owls have a different look this year, though. Center Kevin Lyde anchors the back of the zone, but the point guard is Lynn Greer, a converted shooting guard.
Senior Quincy Wadley and promising freshman David Hawkins also lend guard strength, and 6-foot-6 junior Alex Wesby, who considered coming to UMass, provides frontcourt athleticism. But of all the other players, only 6-10, 315-pound Ron Rollerson sees much action, and he has been a mild disappointment.
The biggest loss from last year's Owls is Sanchez, a point guard who was the 1999-2000 A-10 player of the year, and its top defensive player.
"He was aggressive at the top of their zone, but not that much has changed," UMass point guard Shannon Crooks said. "They're still aggressive."
Mack scored 23 points Thursday, including two straight baskets in the final two minutes after a 12-0 Explorers' run had given them a 58-57 lead. It was a far cry from the last time Mack visited La Salle, a 1-for-13 shooting nightmare in 1999.
But the inside game that had been doing so well lately dropped off. Center Kitwana Rhymer, last week's A-10 player of the week, had five points and six rebounds.
Power forward Micah Brand blew a dunk in the first minute and shot 3 for 9, though almost every shot was a layup. Only reserve forward Eric Williams (nine points and six rebounds in 12 minutes) played well among the big men, though Ronell Blizzard offered some decent defense at the end.
Temple has its own problems. Chaney said this week that teams are spreading out Temple's zone better than ever.
And depth is a problem, especially after guard Ronald Blackshear and forward Carlton Aaron left the team after clashing with Chaney.
UMass, meanwhile, is off to its best A-10 start since 1997-98, when it won its first eight league games. That streak ended with a loss to Temple, which has won six of the last seven meetings.
Any remaining doubts about the legitimacy of this year's UMass improvement would be erased by a win today. A loss wouldn't be devastating, but it would slow the momentum that has taken all season to build.
Flint says he's not fooled by Temple's mediocre overall record, and that his players had better not be, either.
"They don't have Pepe, Karcher or Barnes," Flint said. "But Temple is still Temple."