MHERST - Games like this are not easy for a coach.
Last year the University of Massachusetts beat Rhode Island, 89-50, and 57-37.
Currently the Rams are 5-15 (1-6 Atlantic 10) and their best player, Tavorris Bell, was ruled academically ineligible. Another double-digit scorer, Brian Woodward, is out with an injury.
Before tonight's 7:30 game against URI at the Providence Civic Center, UMass coach Bruiser Flint has to convince his team that this Rhody squad needs to be taken seriously.
Flint's best motivational evidence is that the Minutemen were nearly upset by an equally mediocre La Salle team last week. Rhode Island beat La Salle in double overtime Saturday.
"These games are scary. We didn't think La Salle was going to play, then all of a sudden you're down one with a minute to go," Flint said. "These are teams that come and beat you if you're not ready to play. It's about us going out and playing with the same type of intensity that we have against Temple or Xavier."
Junior point guard Shannon Crooks said the Minutemen know they can't take their New England rivals lightly.
"You have to look at every game as a big game. Against La Salle we came out kind of sluggish because we were looking towards the Temple game," Crooks admitted. "Now that we got the Temple game, we can't look at it like we're finished or that we accomplished everything. We haven't accomplished anything yet.
"We have to go out there and take them the same way we took Temple," Crooks continued. "They have some guys that can play and you can't really sleep on anybody."
It's hard to know who is going to be on the Rhode Island roster from game to game, as the Rams have had more player changes than the Converse All-Stars, a traveling team that plays UMass in an exhibition at the beginning of the season.
At the beginning of the year Bell was active and Tiger Womack was ineligible. Now Womack is playing and Bell is out.
Woodward, a would-be starter, has averaged 12.4 points a contest, but played in just five games due to a knee injury and isn't expected back until mid-February.
Lazare Adingono wasn't even in the United States last semester. The captain of Cameroon's national team played in one game against St. Bonaventure, but was held out of the La Salle game due to problems with his immigration paperwork. He is expected to play tonight.
Flint said he heard that Bell might be back for tonight's game, although he isn't putting much stock in it.
The two true constants have been Dinno Daniels and Zach Marbury.
The arrival of Daniels, a junior college transfer, and his 3.3 assists and 12.5 points per game, have helped Marbury immensely.
With Daniels playing the point, Marbury has moved to shooting guard, where he's averaging 18.8 points per game.
"He's a little more patient. They have him off the ball scoring a lot more," Flint said.
Crooks will cover Marbury, which he did successfully last season. In two games, Crooks held Marbury to a combined 16 points, two assists and 12 turnovers.
"He's one of the better guards in the league. I guarded him last year, so I'm pretty familiar with his style of play," Crooks said. "I know he's going to put up a lot of shots."
Rhody coach Jerry DeGregorio said his team has its hands full with the Minutemen.
"They are a legitimate team that can make the tournament and win the Atlantic 10," he said.
His team's win over La Salle snapped a 16-game conference losing streak dating back to last year and a seven-game overall losing streak. With the adversity his team has faced DeGregorio was proud of its come-from-behind win Saturday.
"We want to be competing every night," DeGregorio said. "I told them to just keep fighting and let's see what happens. All I can do as their coach and leader is to make sure they play hard every day."
MHERST — This University of Massachusetts men's basketball season has sometimes defied logic, so perhaps it's appropriate that tonight's opponent does, too.
"Our team has been a very strange team," said Rhode Island coach Jerry DeGregorio, whose team plays host to UMass tonight at the Providence Civic Center. "Our best rebounders are our guards, and our best 3-point shooters are our big men."
For UMass (8-10, 6-1 Atlantic 10), tonight's 7:30 game comes under circumstances that were hard to imagine three weeks ago. The Minutemen's four-game winning streak is their longest in three years, and they share first place with Xavier and St. Joseph's in the A-10.
Rhode Island (5-15, 1-6) had lost seven straight until Saturday's 96-92 double-overtime win over La Salle. On paper, this is the easiest opponent UMass has left, and while DeGregorio says the Rams are still in there fighting, he doesn't say their problems have disappeared.
"Coming into the season, I thought we could win 12 or 14 games," said DeGregorio, whose first team was 5-25 last year, a school record for losses. "But we've lost 40 to 50 points per game of our offense, and the only guy who can score consistently is Zach Marbury."
Tip Vinson, a two-year starter, left school in October. Tavorris Bell, the Rams' leading scorer and rebounder, became academically ineligible in January. And sophomore guard Brian Woodward has played only five games due to a knee injury.
That leaves Marbury, a 6-foot-3 junior guard who has had to adjust to a constantly changing lineup. He's been the only consistent scorer since Bell's 20.8-point scoring average was lost.
Marbury had a career-high 38 points against La Salle, including 17 of 20 free throws. Tonight he'll be guarded by Shannon Crooks, while Monty Mack will be expected to neutralize his scoring numbers.
Mack scored 20 points in Saturday's 65-64 overtime victory at Temple.
"Zach beats people off the dribble, and he's also a streak shooter," DeGregorio said. "Mack runs out of so many sets and screens, and it's punishing to guard him. But if he starts hitting, it could be a long night for us."
DeGregorio laughed when told that UMass coach Bruiser Flint had been named America's best-dressed coach by CollegeInsider.com.
"He's more than that, trust me," the Rams coach said. "I think he's one of the better coaches in the country, and I think they can make the (NCAA) tournament."
To do that, UMass practically has to sweep the rest of its schedule, or win the Atlantic 10 tournament. For now, that's getting a bit farther ahead than the Minutemen can afford.
But there's no question that this has become a smarter, more cohesive team than its 2-9 start suggested was possible.
"We weren't playing well early on, and we were playing teams you can't afford to not play well against," Flint said. "But one thing that kept me going a little bit was that even though we were shooting poorly and missing free throws, we were still in almost every game."
UMass was also outrebounded in its first six games, but has turned that aspect of its game around.
"Early on, our guards were allowing too much penetration, so the big guys had to help out and would be out of good rebounding position," Flint said. "And on offense, we were taking crazy shots and just running up and down the floor, so we weren't in good position for offensive rebounds, either."
UMass has slowed down its offensive pace, which Flint says has reduced turnovers and improved rebounding position.
DeGregorio finds himself facing the impressive UMass team he expected all along, not the disorganized group of December.
"Before the season, I picked UMass to win the Atlantic 10," he said. "And they still might."
ROVIDENCE -- Remember the story last week about the person from Massachusetts who was declared dead, then turned out not to be?
|MASSACHUSETTS Ht. PPG RPG |
Shannon Crooks 6-2 9.6 3.6
Monty Mack 6-3 18.4 2.9
Kitwana Rhymer 6-10 10.3 7.8
Micah Brand 6-11 8.6 4.5
Winston Smith 6-5 3.8 4.1
Jackie Rogers 6-3 5.1 2.7
Jonathan DePina 5-9 4.7 1.7
Ronnell Blizzard 6-8 2.3 2.0
URI Ht. PPG RPG
THE SCOUTING REPORT
URI (5-15, 1-6 in Atlantic 10): The game is the second of three the team will play at the Civic Center this season. . . . After scoring 96 points in the double-overtime victory over La Salle Saturday, the Rams are averaging 73 points, 8 more than the Minutemen. . . . With 62 points in his last two games, Marbury has jumped from ninth to fifth in scoring in the A-10. . . . Smith is tied for fourth in the conference in steals, with 36, and is eighth in assists at 4.5 per game. . . . Rams have lost 20 of the last 24 against UMass.
Flint was given up for dead by many when his Minutemen began the season with a 2-9 record in non-conference games. Considering that he was already on the hot seat, it was generally conceded that the fifth-year head coach was as good as gone.
However, a funny thing happened on the way to his funeral. Flint and his players began stirring and making noises. When the Atlantic 10 season began -- which meant the team's schedule got easier -- the Minutemen started winning.
When they march into the Civic Center tonight for a 7 p.m. game against Rhode Island, the Minutemen will carry a 6-1 record in A-10 action, good enough for a first-place tie. They come in off of an overtime victory over Temple, at Temple. They are only one basket away from being undefeated in league play. Their loss was a one-pointer at St. Bonaventure.
Suddenly, instead of talking about who might replace Flint, the buzz around the Massachusetts program is whether the team can win another conference championship.
Not everyone is surprised. URI coach Jerry DeGregorio, for one, says he picked UMass to contend for the title before the season began.
In the weekly A-10 conference call yesterday, DeGregorio, who has concerns about his own job, made it clear he supports Flint. In a thinly veiled reference to the reports about Flint being in trouble for his job, DeGregorio praised his rival.
"He's a great coach and a great person," DeGregorio said of Flint.
The numbers point in Flint's direction toward keeping his job. In his previous four years, he has coached the Minutemen to two NCAA Tournaments and once, last year, to the N.I.T. Including his record so far this season, his teams are 79-69 overall, 47-24 in the A-10.
Still, after the success of the John Calipari years that featured five straight conference titles, those numbers have not been enough for some. Flint definitely is fighting for his job. When his team began 2-9, with a killer schedule that included games at Ohio State, North Carolina, Marquette and Oregon, it certainly did not look good.
The improvement in conference play has come about, Flint says, because his team has improved its defense and has gone back to playing a slower, more patterned game.
"We've slowed down a lot more. We're picking our spots to run," he said. "We are playing a lot better, a lot smarter. We're committing fewer turnovers."
Monty Mack, a senior who is nearing the 2,000-point mark of his career, is once again carring the offensive load. Flint said Shannon Crooks will likely draw the assignment tonight to cover Zach Marbury, the URI scoring leader, who poured in 38 points in the Rams' 96-92 double overtime victory over La Salle Saturday.
URI, for its part, is looking to get Marbury help, especially against a defense as tough as UMass.
"Zach's the only legitimate scorer we have right now, the only one who can score on a consistent basis," DeGregorio said. "We need to get other people to step up."