ASHINGTON, D.C. - George Washington coach Tom Penders proved prophetic when he was in Amherst Jan. 6.
After the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team rallied in the second half to beat his Colonials, the 500-game-winning coach speculated that the comeback might be just what the Minutemen needed to turn their season around.
UMass, which had been 2-9 before that game, has gone 10-3 in conference play.
Saturday at 2 p.m. the Minutemen (12-12, 10-3) will try to get over the .500 mark for the first time since beating Iona in the season opener. They've had two previous bites at that apple, but lost at Dayton and to Temple.
Penders wasn't surprised that the Minutemen proved him right.
"I felt coming in like UMass was the best team in the Atlantic 10," Penders said. "They have a great recruiting class, a veteran backcourt, size and depth ... They're a very good team."
UMass coach Bruiser Flint said overcoming that 16-point deficit in the teams' previous meeting jump-started his squad's recent success.
"Just look at the record," Flint said. "From that point on we've been totally different."
The Colonials have been a very good team, too, at least on Wednesday when they dispatched Fordham, 92-76, for their third win in their last four games.
Since the new year, George Washington has beaten the Atlantic 10's weaker teams while struggling to get wins against the conference's tougher teams. They're fighting for a bye in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament, which makes Saturday's game crucial for them.
Flint said the Colonials have been tougher lately.
"They're playing a lot better," he said. They're playing teams tough."
In hopes of finding a winning mix, Penders has taken Red Sox manager Jimy Williams' approach to determining a starting lineup: i.e., no set starters. In fact, 11 players have formed 15 starting lineup combinations this season and no one has started every game.
UMass arrives in the capital coming off a convincing win over Rhode Island. Most encouraging was the 30-point effort from Kitwana Rhymer. Coaches, fans and teammates can hope that Rhymer, who is streaky by nature, is about to embark on a hot streak.
For the Minutemen, junior point guard Shannon Crooks' role is always magnified against the Colonials. In addition to needing to control the pace offensively, Crooks will defend high-scoring George Washington guard SirValiant Brown.
"You can't get into an up-and-down matchup with them," Crooks said. "If we have the opportunity to run, we have to run, but we have to try to make them play at our pace."
Brown is a difficult assignment for more than just his conscience-less shooting. With all the style of a South American soccer player, Brown tries to draw fouls. He alternates flops and dramatic thrusts backward at the slightest contact and regularly whines to officials when he doesn't end up at the free-throw line.
That practice doesn't exactly endear Brown to opposing crowds or defenders, but Crooks said it's just part of the game.
"The refs are quick with the whistle with him, too. I just have to space myself and keep him in front," Crooks said. "He does a good acting job, so I'm not taking anything away from him. You can't let it get to you."
Brown isn't the only Colonial worth worrying about. In fact, he isn't even their leading scorer. That distinction belongs to Chris Monroe, who is averaging 19.1 points per game and will be guarded by Winston Smith.
"They're the most explosive team in the league," Flint said. "Any night Val Brown can get 30, Chris Monroe can get 30. Attila Cosby can get 30. Mike King can get 30. All those guys can score some."
he portion of this 12-12 season that UMass wants to remember started on Jan. 6, when the Minutemen opened their Atlantic 10 schedule with a 76-60 run over George Washington.
At the time, considering the Minutemen's 2-9 start, the win over George Washington was almost uncharacteristic.
But for a UMass team that has won 10 of the 13 games it has played since then, the streak of solid basketball can't end with the Colonials, either.
Today's game at GW's Smith Center, renowned as a noisy pit that has ensnared some of UMass' best-ever teams, is yet another vital step in the Minutemen's need to build steam for the A-10 tournament the first week of March.
And as far as Colonials coach Tom Penders is concerned, he saw the real UMass back on Jan. 6 at the Mullins Center.
``I felt coming into the season that they were the best team in the Atlantic 10,'' said Penders. ``They had everybody back, they had a great recruiting class, a great backcourt, size, depth.
``They were 2-9 when we faced them, and we took the lead on them in the first half. And then they came out in the second half, and it looked as if we pissed them off.
``But I still feel the same way about them. They can beat anybody, and it wouldn't surprise me if they won out the rest of their schedule. I know they played a clunker against Temple, but then so did we. If they can get that game behind them, then I think they'll be an outstanding club. Records can be deceiving.''
But there is one that has held fairly true since the new year. The Minutemen have a 4-2 conference road record.
The first loss, to St. Bonaventure, came on a last second trey by Vidal Massiah.
Discount the second loss - a flat performance two weeks ago against Dayton - and the Minutemen have been one of the two most dangerous road teams in the conference this season, along with A-10 leader St. Joseph's.