MHERST — The Atlantic 10 Conference regular-season men's basketball championship is up for grabs, but Bruiser Flint says the preseason favorite is still the favorite.
"I don't care what anyone says, I think Xavier is still the team to beat," said the University of Massachusetts coach, whose team will try to beat the Musketeers for a second time this season in tonight's 7:30 game at the Mullins Center. "They have great athletes, and they shoot the ball."
This is the biggest week of the season for UMass (10-11, 8-2 Atlantic 10), which remains home to play Temple Saturday. But first comes Xavier (18-4, 9-2), the preseason A-10 favorite in a poll of coaches and media.
The Musketeers present a stern test — and an opportunity. Another quality win, kicking off a three-game homestand that ends against Rhode Island Tuesday, would look very nice.
"I've always said a team has to sneak a few on the road and win its home games (to win the A-10)," Flint said. "We've snuck a few on the road. Now we have to win our home games."
One of those road wins was 75-64 at Xavier Jan. 9. It was probably UMass' best performance of the season.
But the Musketeers remain formidable. They feature 6-foot-8 sophomore David West, who led the Atlantic 10 in rebounding last year.
He's leading again this year with 11.3 rebounds per game, which is fourth in the nation. West also leads the A-10 in field-goal percentage (54.1) and defensive rebounds (7.6 per game).
West scored 28 points with 11 rebounds against UMass in January, but no other Xavier player had more than seven points or three boards.
"UMass handled us in every phase of the game," Xavier coach Skip Prosser said. "They played harder on defense than we did on offense. We didn't do a good job on Monty Mack (who had 26 points), on their low-post guys or on the boards (where UMass had a 43-26 rebounding edge)."
Mack will be aiming for his seventh straight 20-point game. No UMass player has done that since Julius Erving in 1970-71.
The Minutemen have been off for eight days, giving time for minor bumps and bruises to heal. Those included a foot injury to Mack and an ingrown toenail suffered by forward Jackie Rogers.
This week's games will likely be played in a tournament atmosphere. UMass' chances of reaching the NCAA tournament are slender but possible, yet any losses — especially at home — would be damaging.
Winning the Atlantic 10 tournament would produce an automatic bid, but Flint said an at-large spot is still possible.
"One thing in our favor is that we've played a ridiculous (hard) nonconference schedule and a lot of road games," he said. "An at-large bid would depend on how far we went in the A-10 tournament."
That statement assumes a strong regular-season finish. Athletic director Bob Marcum said the school received a small but symbolic victory in the mail this week — a handbook the NCAA sends all teams it considers tournament contenders.
UMass probably wasn't on the NCAA's mailing list during its 2-9 start. But now the Minutemen are battling St. Joseph's (10-1 in the Atlantic 10 after beating Temple 71-62 last night) and Temple (8-4) for the regular-season A-10 title.
Xavier was ranked 24th in The Associated Press poll last week, but dropped out after losing to St. Joseph's.
Other than West, the Musketeers feature bruising 6-8 junior Kevin Frey (11.5 points, 5.8 rebounds per game), 6-4 freshman Romain Sato (11.5, 5.7), 6-5 junior Lloyd Price and two point guards, senior Maurice McAfee and sophomore Lionel Chalmers.
Chalmers had 18 points in Saturday's 78-71 win over Temple. McAfee had 12 points and 12 assists.
rom Bruiser Flint's perspective, the goals and urgency should be obvious by now.
The UMass men's basketball team hits its roughest home stretch of the season this week, with Xavier in town tonight and Temple on Saturday, and the Minutemen have no margin for error.
Last week's loss to Dayton dropped the Minutemen (10-11) to 8-2 in the conference and into third place behind front-runner St. Joseph's (19-4, 9-1) and Xavier (18-4, 9-2).
The Minutemen have already defeated the Musketeers and Owls on the road this season, but if they hope to make a postseason run they have to take care of things at home.
``We're right there, in the middle of things, and if anyone on this team can't feel that, then something's wrong with you,'' said Flint. ``We still have a chance to win the regular season, and to be Atlantic 10 champs.''
It's unlikely to happen without a win tonight.
The Musketeers, who ripped off a six-game win streak following their Jan. 9 loss to the Minutemen, lost at St. Joseph's last week before returning home to handily dispatch Temple (14-11, 8-3) on Saturday.
And their memory isn't overly short.
``They really handled us at home in every phase of the game,'' said Xavier coach Skip Prosser. ``We didn't do a good job on Monty Mack, and we didn't do a good job on their post guys. We have to play them better.
``We have to screen against them better. The problem the last time is that they played harder on defense than we played on offense. We made it easy for them to keep us in front of them, because we stood there holding the ball.''
Those deficiencies have a familiar sound for Flint, looking back to the Dayton loss.
``But we've practiced hard,'' Flint said of the Minutemen's just-completed six-day break. ``I've been talking about how these are two of the tougher games we will have. Everyone is bunched into the top four in the conference right now.''
Flint would obviously love UMass to be the team that breaks the cluster.
``A lot of it from here has to do with whether we can make a nice run,'' he said. ``A lot of it has to do with how far we can go in the (Atlantic 10 tournament).
``One thing that works for us is that we've played a ridiculous non-conference schedule, and a lot of road games,'' he said. ``That's one reason that people should still say that UMass has a chance.''
MHERST, Mass. — The highlight films sell speed. Xavier has long advertised an up-tempo style with full-court pressure defense — 40 minutes of heck. This season's success is more what-the-heck: In having stopped pressing almost altogether, XU is defending better than any other Musketeer team in 39 years.
“You have to adjust your team to the guys you have,” coach Skip Prosser said. “As preseason and some of the early games evolved, we thought it was necessary to change.”
|XAVIER at UMASS|
• When: 7:30 p.m. today.
• Where: William D. Mullins Memorial Center (9,493).
• Records: XU 18-4 (9-2 A-10), UMass 10-11 (8-2).
• TV: Time Warner Ch.2 in Cincinnati.
• Radio: WLW-AM (700).
BY THE NUMBERS
“You've gotta love playing defense,” XU junior Lloyd Price said. “Our success has been a matter of guys sitting down (in a defensive stance) and taking pride in the half-court defense.”
XU's 40 percent defensive field-goal percentage is the best since the 1961-62 team allowed just 38 percent. The school record is 36 percent in 1952-53; XU doesn't have records available before that season.
How much of an improvement is this? XU's best mark in the last 34 years had been 42 percent in 1998-99. XU's 30 percent defensive 3-point percentage also is on pace to better the school record of 30 percent set two seasons ago.
“We have sacrificed tempo for the sake of defensive efficiency,” Prosser said.
With XU executing well in its half-court offense, funneling most possessions through center David West (17.8 ppg), there hasn't been a need for as many transition baskets. Less gambling in the press has meant fewer easy baskets for opponents.
“We're not doing anything spectacular (on defense),” West said. “But we're real scrappy. We try to get our hands on passes and get some deflections.”
UMass knows defense, too. In conference play, it ranks No.1 in field-goal percentage defense (38 percent), 3-point defense (29 percent) and blocks (5.3 avg.), ranking second in scoring defense (63.2) and third in rebounding margin (plus-4.2).
UMass beat XU 75-64 Jan.9 in Cincinnati, and the Musketeers insist that could be blamed on their lack of effort. West managed 28 points and 11 rebounds, but his teammates were a collective 11-for-41 from the field, and XU was outrebounded 43-26.
The onus will be on Price and Kevin Frey, XU's ailing forwards. Against UMass, Price fouled out with two rebounds, and Frey played 23 minutes and got one.
Frey, troubled by bone spurs in his ankle, grabbed no rebounds Saturday against LaSalle. And Price's health has worsened: Besides an ankle sprain that has dogged him all season, he has suffered recently from a bulging hernia that caused him to sit out Tuesday's practice.
“Lloyd's situation is of a little more concern than Kevin's,” Prosser said.
After a 2-9 nonconference season, UMass has made a startling turnaround to reach the fringes of NCAA Tournament consideration. It stands 73rd in the RPI.
“One thing that works in our favor is we played a ridiculous nonconference schedule (rated No.2 in the RPI),” UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. “That's why people are saying we still have a chance.”
Last week, UMass senior guard Monty Mack (19.3 ppg) became just the second 2,000-point scorer in school history; Jim McCoy has the school record of 2,374 points.
TV LISTINGS: Tonight's game will air on Time Warner Ch.2 in Cincinnati, Adelphia Ch.3 in Delhi and Adelphia Ch.15 in Amelia and Liberty Township. Fox Sports Net will air it on tape delay at 2a.m. Thursday.
alentine’s Day is supposed to be for lovers, not fighters. When the A-10 schedule makers put their heads together at the beginning of the season, they made a big mistake pitting XU (18-4, 9-2 A-10) and UMass (10-11, 8-2) against each other on a day reserved for roses, chocolate, and big, huggable teddy bears. Make no mistake – this one will be a war. The victor will still have a chance to catch conference leader St. Joseph’s in the final weeks of the regular season. The loser will need to start looking towards the A-10 tournament title for their bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Maybe the A-10 was thinking about heart when they assigned these two teams to February 14. UMass lacks none of the aforementioned fire; they play relentless defense and can put points on the board with anyone. Monty Mack, the player with the most gumption on the squad, leads his Minutemen into the Mullins Center against the Musketeers. Mack averages 19.3ppg, sixth-best in the A-10. The senior shooting guard is complemented by an inside attack of Kitwana Rhymer (9.7ppg, 7.3rpg) and Micah Brand (9.4ppg, 4.5rpg). PGs Shannon Crooks (3.0apg) and Jonathan DePina (2.9apg) share the ball well, keeping the entire team involved in the game.
UMass will bring a variety of lineups at you during the game. They can go really big, playing with three players over 6’8” on their frontline, or they can try to outquick their opponents, playing Depina, Crooks, Mack, and Winston Smith at the same time. Nine players play more than 10 minutes a game, giving Bruiser Flint’s team a decided advantage in depth. The Musketeers will need to support their Player of the Year candidate, David West, this time around if they want a chance to win the game. In the team’s only loss at the Cintas Center, West scored 28 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, only to see no other teammate score more than seven. The Jan. 9th battle was won and lost on the ability to establish a perimeter attack; the Feb. 14th meeting will be no different.
The Minutemen ended a six-game winning streak with a loss to Dayton last Tuesday. With Temple around the corner over the weekend, they cannot afford a home loss to the Muskies. In the same fashion, Xavier cannot afford to lose the season series with UMass. The Musketeers have won eight of their last ten but dropped from the Top 25 rankings after losing to St. Joe’s and beating Temple.
The magnitude of this game is unquestioned. Both teams desperately need this win to have any hopes for the season title. In terms of making the field of 64, UMass may need the win even more than the Musketeers, due to their poor non-conference record. Two of the schools’ three meetings in Amherst have resulted in overtime games. Will a win prove reclusive in the hometown of Emily Dickinson?
XU 79, UMass 76 (OT)
MHERST - On the Atlantic 10's weekly conference call Monday morning, University of Massachusetts coach Bruiser Flint said that in the wake of his team's recent run of success, it wouldn't be impossible for the Minutemen to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, despite their 10-11 record.
"I think we can get an at large bid," he said. "But a lot of it has to do with the way we finish."
The odds for the Minutemen to prove Flint correct are still long, but this week's two games against Xavier and Temple will go a long way toward determining whether they can keep that chance alive.
Tonight at 7:30 in the Mullins Center, UMass will try to recreate the magic that allowed it to upset the Musketeers, 75-64, in the Cintas Center on Jan. 9. It was Xavier's only loss in its brand-new gym.
In that first game the Minutemen hammered the Musketeers on the boards, winning the rebounding battle 43-26, aided largely by a career-high 11 boards from Winston Smith.
Xavier's sophomore center David West, a leading contender for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year honors, scored 28 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in that game, but the Minutemen were able to keep him from getting any help. Playing aggressive defense, UMass kept the rest of the Xavier players under 10 points.
Minuteman guard Monty Mack, who will battle West for the A-10's top player trophy, had 26 points in that game to lead UMass.
"They handled us in every phase of the game," Xavier coach Skip Prosser said. "We didn't do a good job on their post guys and Mack was able to score against us. We have to play a lot better. Whether that will be enough to win, I don't know."
The Musketeers finished a difficult stretch last week. After losing a tough game at St. Joseph's, 79-76, they rebounded to beat Temple, 78-71, in Cincinnati.
Prosser said in the first game, his team was too stationary on offense.
"They played harder on defense than we did on offense," he said. "We just stood there too often. We need to move more and cut harder and screen better to make it harder for them."
Flint is leery of the Musketeers in the rematch.
"They're going to come at you," Flint said. "The key to the game is that you can't run up and down with them. I still think Xavier is the best team in the league. If we don't come to play we're going to get beat."
Flint said it's tough to beat a team twice in a season.
"It's tougher because they're going to see what you did," Flint said. "We played with a lot of intensity that game and I think we sort of shocked them. They understand it's late in the year and they're going to be ready."
Sophomore power forward Micah Brand agreed.
"They felt that we went in there and took one from them," Brand said. "They're looking for a little revenge. If we do the same things we did last time, though, it should turn out the same."
Prosser said he watched the tape of Dayton beating the Minutemen last Tuesday, and while he'll take some things from it, he doesn't plan to make the Flyers' game plan a blueprint for his team.
"Dayton played behind them and forced them to shoot over them a little bit," Prosser said. "We don't really play that way."
The Minutemen return home after a rare week off following that loss to the Flyers. Flint said his team used the time to get healthy, get their school work in order and put some new things into the game plan. Flint declined to elaborate for fear of tipping his hand.
"It was good to have a week off," senior center Kitwana Rhymer said. "It allowed us to clear our minds a little bit and get caught up on some school work and start focusing on what we've got to do."
Rhymer's counterpart, West, has remained on a tear. He is fourth in the nation in rebounding with 11.3 per game to go with 17.8 points per game.
"David West is going to get his (points) because he always does," Flint said. "You have to try to do a good job on the other guys so nobody else hurts you."
Rhymer stopped short of calling West the league's toughest big man to play against, but praised his game anyway.
"He is good," Rhymer said. "He's one of the best big men in the league."
NOTES: The game will feature the Mullins Center's new court. UMass replaced the home hardwood earlier this week. The new floor looks similar. Center court now has a simple UMass logo surrounded by the words "Mullins Center."
The giant Mullins Center logos on either side of the court are gone, replace by bigger UMass symbols as well.
According to Jason Galaska, assistant athletic director for tickets, sales for both tonight and Saturday against Temple are going well.
He estimated that the Xavier game would draw between 6,000 and 7,000 fans, adding that fewer than 1,000 seats remain for Saturday.
Meanwhile, ABC is promoting UMass-Temple as its No. 1 game Saturday. Brent Musburger and Dick Vitale will call the game.