AYTON--It was just a few weeks ago that people around the Atlantic 10 Conference were feeling a bit sorry for Bruiser Flint and his University of Massachusetts basketball team.
The Minutemen were 2-9 after their nonconference schedule, and people were beginning to suggest that it might be time to find a new coach.
UMass had enjoyed nine straight years of excellence, which included a trip to the Final Four in 1996 under previous basketball boss John Calipari, but the Minutemen had posted records of 14-16 and 17-16 the last two years and crowds at the Mullins Center had slipped from the consistent capacity audiences of 9,493 to an average of 5,465.
Everybody seemed to forget that UMass had played a murderous nonconference schedule, which was ranked eighth toughest in Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings, and 13th toughest by the College RPI.
When the Minutemen hit the A-10 portion of their schedule, they did a remarkable turnaround, winning eight of nine. Nobody's feeling sorry for them anymore. They are 10-10 overall and tied with Xavier for first place in the A-10 with an 8-1 record as they take on the University of Dayton Flyers tonight at UD Arena.
UMass is riding a six-game winning string that began on Jan. 18 when it came from behind to defeat Dayton, 62-57, in Amherst.
Dayton, 13-9 overall and 4-5 in the league, may get an emotional boost from the return to action of sophomore forward Brooks Hall, who was cleared to play Monday. Hall sat out four games after the discovery of a stress fracture in his left leg. Doctors gave UD officials the green light to let Hall play after a follow-up bone scan Monday morning.
"That's great news," Hall said upon learning he could put away the crutches he's been using. "I hope I'll be able to jump back into it. I can't stand sitting on the bench watching."
UD coach Oliver Purnell said Hall would be available only for "spot duty" against UMass because he hasn't practiced for two weeks and is not in peak condition. Hall has been riding a stationary bike and lifting weights during his time off.
Without Hall, Dayton was 2-2, beating Fordham and Duquesne and losing at St. Bonaventure and Xavier.
"The guys played pretty well," said Hall, who was on the bench in street clothes for all four games. "Through me sitting, some of the younger players' confidence is up. Ramod (Marshall) and Sammy (Smith) are both playing with more confidence. We said at the time that a lot of good things could come of this."
Purnell agreed that Marshall and Smith both have benefited from the additional playing time and that the Flyers should be a better team for it.
Their challenge tonight is to keep the Massachusetts post players away from the offensive backboards. While Dayton held UMass guard Monty Mack to seven points in the first meeting, the Flyers were manhandled by three UMass big men--6-foot-10, 256-pound Kitwana Rhymer, 6-11, 243-pound Micah Brand and 6-8, 230-pound Jackie Rogers. They scored so much from offensive rebounds that at times it seemed Massachusetts' best play was a missed shot.
Rhymer collected 19 points and 13 rebounds, Rogers came off the bench to score 16 points and Brand had 14 points. If you add a basket by 6-8 Ronell Blizzard, the UMass front line accounted for 51 of the team's 62 points.
Dayton made an unrealistic six of seven 3-point shots (some of them contested) in the first half to lead, 32-26, at the intermission. The Flyers had a 10-point lead early in the second half, but lost it. The score was tied at 57 with 2:06 left, but UD didn't score on its last six possessions and UMass pulled away with five free throws.
AYTON, Ohio — The current six-game winning streak began against Dayton, and University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach Bruiser Flint knows it could end against the Flyers, too.
"If I'm them, I'm thinking I let one get away," Flint said as UMass (10-10, 8-1 Atlantic 10 Conference) prepared for tonight's test against Dayton (13-9, 4-5) at UD Arena. "They slowed us down with their zone, and we didn't attack it the way we need to attack it. But we made a run at the end."
UMass trailed Dayton by nine points midway through the second half Jan. 18 at the Mullins Center. But with a 26-12 finishing run, the Minutemen grabbed a 62-57 win and they've never looked back, surging to a first-place Atlantic 10 tie with Xavier (8-1). St. Joseph's (7-1) is right behind.
"We've got the easiest team in the conference coming here, right?" Dayton coach Oliver Purnell said with a laugh. "They're perhaps the best team in the league, and they're certainly playing as well as anybody right now."
Purnell doesn't dispute that Dayton let the earlier game get away. A loss would have left, the Minutemen 2-2 in the league and 4-11 overall, which means the impact of the victory — and the momentum it generated — cannot be underestimated.
"We did a great job on Monty Mack, but their inside play down the stretch hurt us," Purnell said. "It's no secret Bruiser is going to pound it inside, anyway, and with his frontcourt, why not?"
Mack scored seven points in the first Dayton game. But Kitwana Rhymer scored 19 with 13 rebounds, Jackie Rogers had a career-high 16 (on 8-for-9 shooting) and Micah Brand scored nine in a powerful performance in the paint.
Rogers matched that season high in Saturday's 85-59 win over Fordham. Purnell also knows it's not likely that Mack, who needs 20 points to join Jim McCoy as the only career 2,000-point scorers in UMass history, will shoot 3 for 10 as he did the first time.
"With UMass, it's pick your poison," said Purnell, referring to the inside and outside threats. "I'd like to be in the position we were the first time, but to do it, we have to keep them off the glass, especially the offensive glass."
Yesterday, Flint endured good-natured ribbing about dropping from first to fifth in a weekly poll by CollegeInsider.com about the nation's best-dressed coaches. But after questioning how Cincinnati's Bob Huggins could rise to first in the poll, Flint got down to business about his team and cited improved guard play as the key to the turnaround.
"I met with the three of them (Mack, Shannon Crooks and Jonathan DePina) around New Year's," Flint said. "I told them I had enough big guys to make substitutions, but that I had to go with them at guard, I said if they kept playing the way they were, we were in for a long season.
"But we've slowed down our offense, and Shannon and Jonathan are doing better at running the team," Flint said. "And before, Monty was trying to catch the ball and take his man 1-on-1, which is not his game. Now he's coming off screens better and playing like Monty Mack can."
Dayton expects to have 6-foot-6 Brooks Hall, who has missed four games with an injured left tibia, for at least spot duty. Hall was cleared to play after a bone scan showed his left foot had improved.
Freshman guard Ramod Marshall has filled in with solid minutes in Hall's absence.
The Flyers are led by 6-4 senior Tony Stanley, who scored 23 in the first UMass game and averages 17.4 points per game. Keith Waleskowski, a 6-8 freshman who became a starter three games ago, point guard David Morris and 6-6 Nate Green fill out the starting lineup.
Yuanta Holland, a 6-7 senior, was a starter until Waleskowski took his spot, largely because Purnell said Holland had some trouble getting untracked at the start of a game or a half.
AYTON, Ohio - A lot has changed since Jan. 18. When the Dayton Flyers visited the Mullins Center that day, they were the favorite in their game against the University of Massachusetts.
Dayton was 10-6 and looked to be a contender for its second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth. The Minutemen were 5-10, fresh off a tough loss to St. Bonaventure on the road, and looked to be playing out the string in a disappointing season.
The Flyers played like the favorites for most of the game and led by 10 points in the second half, but the Minutemen bounced back and surprised them, 62-57.
"It was a weird game," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint. "They pretty much led us throughout. We made a little run and they missed some foul shots and then all of a sudden we made some plays at the end to win the game."
Since then, the Minutemen have won six straight and have clawed their way into a first-place tie in the Atlantic 10 Conference at 8-1 (10-10 overall), while the Flyers have slid to the middle of the pack (4-5).
The teams meet again Tuesday night at 7:30 at UD Arena.
The Flyers, who have been without 6-foot-6 forward Brooks Hall for the past two weeks (fractured bone in his leg), will get him back for Tuesday's game. Hall was a starter before his injury, but according to coach Oliver Purnell, Hall's role will be limited tonight.
"Brooks has done nothing basketball-wise for two weeks," Purnell said. "We will ease him back into things, but having him back will certainly help our rotation."
Against the Minutemen, Purnell could use some help inside as well. The UMass big guys accounted for 49 of the Minutemen's 62 points in the teams' last battle.
"UMass has a tremendous inside presence," Purnell said. "It's no secret Bruiser is going to pound the ball inside, and who wouldn't? We have to do better rebounding. If I had to isolate one thing to do better, I'd like to hit the boards more effectively."
Flint wasn't sure how Dayton would adjust from the last game.
"They may try to double-team us inside," Flint said. "But that's never been Oliver's approach."
Dayton's most effective inside weapon has been freshman big man Keith Waleskowski, who has averaged 11.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He hit those averages nearly on the dot with 11 points and eight rebounds last time against UMass. But he got minimal help as the Minutemen won the rebounding battle, 33-25.
"He's been scoring for them," Flint said. "He gives them much more of an inside presence."
On the perimeter, Shannon Crooks replaces Monty Mack in the role of guarding Dayton's Tony Stanley, who had 23 points against UMass last time. Winston Smith could get a shot at Stanley as well.
"Last time we let (Stanley) get some open looks. If he catches the ball, you have to be up on him. I thought Shannon did a decent job against him in the second half," said Flint.
NOTES: Former UMass coach and current radio broadcaster Jack Leaman did not make the trip to Dayton due to personal reasons. Nick Joos, who is the Minuteman media relations director, will replace Leaman doing commentary on radio station WHMP.
AYTON, Ohio - University of Massachusetts coach Bruiser Flint likes to joke about Monty Mack's scoring ability.
"He should thank me every night before he goes to bed for all the shots he's taken in this program," Flint said recently.
All of those shots Flint talked about will add up to 2,000 career points very soon. It might happen Tuesday night at UD Arena against Dayton. Or it could come on Feb. 14 vs. Xavier at the Mullins Center. But barring injury, Mack, who needs just 20 points to get there, gets his first crack at the mark Tuesday. Dayton is the only Atlantic 10 team that has held Mack under 20 points in every matchup.
The plateau will mark the final numerical milestone for a player who will leave Amherst as UMass' No. 2 career scorer. That's more points than Lou Roe had. More points than Marcus Camby, Tony Barbee, Al Skinner and Dr. J. More points than anybody except Jim McCoy (2,374).
Less than a fraction of a percent of all players who lace up sneakers in Division I ever get to 2,000 points. Among some 3,000 players on 300-plus teams, only Centenary's Ronnie McCollum has cleared two grand. It's an elite club.
When the Minutemen recruited Mack, they thought they were getting a combination guard and envisioned Mack playing a lot of time at point, making him by definition a passer. Instead, he became one of the greatest scorers the school has ever seen. Nobody saw it coming.
"I thought I was going to come here and be a back-up point guard," said Mack, a 6-foot-2 South Boston product. "Everything just switched around for me."
"He's had a great career. Nobody in Boston ever thought he'd have a career like this," Flint said. "But he's going to go down as one of the best players to ever play here."
In some ways Mack's double grand career was aided by the NCAA's academic eligibility rules. Had Mack, who sat out his first year as a partial qualifier, been eligible as a freshman, he likely would have spent a fair amount of his rookie season riding the bench. He would have watched Edgar Padilla, Carmelo Travieso and Charlton Clarke play most of the backcourt minutes.
He did watch them, but in street clothes. Mack practiced and learned the team's system, making him far more ready to play the following year. When Padilla and Travieso graduated, Mack was an instant starter and scored right away, beginning with 15 points at Fresno State in his first career game.
"Sitting out that year made me the player I am now," Mack said. "Playing against Edgar and Carmelo made me a lot better."
At first Mack benefited from the attention that opposing defenses were giving UMass' Lari Ketner-led inside game, but as the two players' careers progressed, Mack surpassed Ketner as the team's most reliable scoring threat.
When Ketner and Clarke graduated, Mack was the undisputed No. 1 option on the team's offense last year, which earned him a lot of shots.
It also garnered him his share of defensive attention. Mack's scoring numbers increased despite that attention, which included everything from boxes-and-ones to triangles-and-twos. Opposing coaches stayed up late inventing new geometry to try to slow Mack, but he kept scoring, from 443 points his first year to 542 in 1998-99 and 632 this year.
Flint pointed to Mack's quick release as a big factor.
"He does a great job of reading and running off screens," Flint said. "Because he gets it off so quick when he catches it, if you're a step late, it's up. That's been a big key to his success."
The NCAA helped again, passing the rule that allowed partial qualifiers to earn back their lost year if they fulfilled their degree requirements in four years. Mack made the grades and went back to making shots.
Asked about his success over the course of his career, Mack has downplayed his numbers. But while he admitted pride about getting to 2,000, he wanted the milestone to be part of a bigger goal.
"There's a lot of guys out there that can score 2,000 points. I'm just glad I'm one of them. I'm proud of it, but I'll be prouder once I see if we have a winning season," Mack said. "If we keep winning like we've been doing, I'll be more proud, otherwise it will just be something I did."
His points have been part of something already. Without Mack scoring as often as he has, the Minutemen would have had a hard time making the NIT last year and an even harder time turning this season around.
Considering that, maybe Flint should be the grateful one. Mack can thank him for the shots, but Flint better thank Mack for making them.
t's almost magic-number time for the teams competing for a first-round bye in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament. In the new 11-team field, the top five teams get the early byes, as No. 6 plays No. 11, No. 7 plays 10 and No. 8 and 9 square off on March 7.
Since the league expanded before the 1995-96 season, no team has ever won the event without a bye.
Barring self-destruction, the foursome of UMass (8-1), Xavier (8-1), St. Joseph's (7-1) and Temple (7-2) are just a few wins away from clinching byes.
St. Bonaventure (4-4), George Washington (4-5), Dayton (4-5) and fading Fordham will battle for the other while trying to unseat one of the big four in the process.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Wednesday night at Hawk Hill, once-beatens Xavier and St. Joseph's face off at 8 p.m.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK OPEN DIVISION: "I'm dying a slow death here," La Salle coach Speedy Morris on his La Salle team's continually frustrating season.
COACHING RUMORS: Morris' inability to get the Explorers over the hump in the Atlantic 10 despite regularly fielding teams with talent, has ignited speculation that he might step down after this year.
Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlon, a Philadelphia native who has turned the Leopards into a perennial Patriot League power, could be a replacement at La Salle.
Elsewhere, Tom Penders has denied rumors that he would be a candidate at struggling Rhode Island, where Jerry DeGregorio is widely assumed to be on the way out. Duquesne's Darelle Porter remains on the hot seat as well.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK CHANEY DIVISION: "To reach this stage of the season, you just don't want me to get hissed off at you. Because I will cut my nose off to spite my butt. I've done it before. Fail? Yeah. But try. He's guilty of not doing what's expected of him. I put my trust in you when I recruit you. That's what I said to him. I don't even want those guys (who don't follow the rules.) I don't (care) how good they are." - Owl coach John Chaney to the Philadelphia Daily News after freshman David Hawkins missed study hall.
POLLS, BRACKETS AND STUFF: College Insider's weekly fashion poll saw UMass coach Bruiser Flint slip to fifth, as Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins took over the top spot.
But Flint's team is showing up in more places on the Internet. The Minutemen remained in ESPN.com's projected NCAA Tournament bracket as a No. 13 seed, now in the West region facing fourth-seeded Kentucky in San Diego.
The Minutemen also were included on ESPN's Cinderella Watch as an upstart team with a chance to make noise in the NCAA Tournament.
FINALLY: For people who have lost track of former Pioneer Valley star Adam Harrington...
After sitting out last year at Auburn following his transfer from N.C. State, Harrington has played well, averaging 15.5 points per game for the 13-9 Tigers.
He's not the only person with a western Massachusetts connection at Auburn. Former Hamp High coach Don Moye, who also coached the Springfield Slamm, is an administrative assistant on coach Cliff Ellis' coaching staff.