MHERST — This has been called the U Game for the past few years, but the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team hopes to use it as a U-Turn game for a floundering season.
For a club desperately seeking to reverse direction from where it's been going, regional rivalries and bragging rights mean nothing now. And neither do moral victories, not for a 1-5 team that's proven it can stay close to quality opponents, but hasn't proven it can beat them.
So in tonight's 7 o'clock game against Connecticut at the Hartford Civic Center, close won't really be good enough, although a five-game losing streak has provoked skepticism that UMass is not even good enough to stay close to UConn (7-1).
"I'm not worried about the rivalry, I'm just looking for a victory," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said after Sunday's 54-51 loss at Ohio State. The Minutemen are enduring their longest losing streak in 10 years and worst start in 20, and a UMass-Conn rivalry restored to great fanfare in 1996 is now being treated as just another game — with no stampede to the box office for $35 tickets, many of which remain available.
UMass is confused and disappointed, but insists this year's pattern can be reversed.
"We go over situations in practice, like taking care of the ball and avoiding turnovers — all the little things," forward Micah Brand said. But UMass has rarely combined sufficient offense and defense at the same time.
No. 11-ranked UConn has won six straight since an 80-66 loss to Dayton at the Maui Invitational. That Saturday's thrilling 71-69 home win over Arizona was decided by a controversial last-second goaltending call means little to the Huskies, who can use the victory as an argument to those who question their non-conference schedule.
But UConn has already played Quinnipiac, Chaminade (a Division II team that hosts the Maui event), Brown, Houston and New Hampshire. After UMass, the Huskies face Fairfield, Rhode Island and Stony Brook.
With the exception of Maui, their first trip outside their own state will come Jan. 3 at Boston College. So while UMass — which has already visited Marquette, Oregon and Ohio State — may hope for a UConn letdown after Arizona, this is one of the few non-conference games the Huskies must presumably take seriously.
Senior holdovers from UConn's 1999 NCAA championship team include 6-foot-3 Albert Mouring (17.8 ppg., 40.8 percent 3-point shooting, 89.4 percent free throw shooting), 6-8 Edmund Saunders (11.4 ppg., 8.8 rpg.) and 6-11 Souleymane Wane (6.2 rpg.).
They're supported by 6-1 freshman Taliek Brown (7.6 pph., 5.2 apg.), 6-7 freshman Caron Butler (18.0 ppg., 7.4 rpg.), 6-7 junior Johnnie Selvie (12.6 ppg., 6.5 rpg., nine blocks), 6-2 sophomore Tony Robertson (8.5 ppg. and the controversial winning basket against Arizona) and 6-4 sophomore Marcus Cox (4.4 ppg.)
On paper, it looks like a UConn rout. But on paper, UMass also looks much better than a 1-5 team, so Flint is hoping his surprisingly struggling team will deliver a different type of surprise tonight.
"We need something to make us feel good about ourselves," he said. And nothing will do that, he knows, like a win over UConn that practically nobody expects.
ARTFORD, Conn. - When pen was finally put to paper in June of 1996 for the UGame, the battle between the Universities of Massachusetts and Connecticut created excitement throughout college basketball as both programs had been renting prime locations in the top 10 for several years.
The trash talk back and forth between the fans of the two institutions could be put to rest as the teams would finally meet on the court.
The game was lauded as a northeast version of Kentucky-Louisville, a pair of national-caliber non-conference, geographical rivals who had gone a long time without facing one another finally returning to the court to the delight of the teams, the fans and the game.
When they finally met, some of the glitz was gone as Lou Roe, Marcus Camby and John Calipari were missing from the maroon side of the Hartford Civic Center and Donyell Marshall and Ray Allen no longer played for the Huskies.
But the original UGame was exciting nonetheless as Carmelo Travieso's 3-point attempt at the buzzer went in and out and the Huskies prevailed, 64-61.
But since that rivalry revival, UConn has held a decided advantage. As the Minuteman program has slipped in recent years, the Huskies have remained a national power and have dominated the series, winning all four UGames.
The fifth is Tuesday at 7 in the Hartford Civic Center. Any win against UConn is important to UMass players and fans, but it's hard to imagine a scenario where they have been more desperate for this victory.
At 1-5, the reeling Minutemen could use any win. UConn? UMass-Lowell? Hampshire College? Any victory to end a rough stretch.
"I'm not worried about the magic of playing UConn," coach Bruiser Flint said Sunday after his team's 54-51 loss to Ohio State. "We're just trying to get a victory. We need something to feel good about. We need a win to start turning things around."
But success against the nation's 11th ranked team in both polls would be a gigantic psychological lift for UMass. Add to that a rare chance for the school's fans to chest-beat a little, alleviating some of the inferiority complex that Minuteman fans have felt toward their southern neighbors recently.
"It's everybody's dream to beat UConn," said UMass senior guard Monty Mack. "We've played them tough before. If we play the way we did in the second half (against Ohio State) we have a chance to beat them."
Achieving that success won't be easy for the Minutemen. The Vegas wiseguys have UConn favored by a dozen.
While the Huskies are young and somewhat undersized, they are fresh off a 71-69 win over Arizona, a team many people expect to win the national championship.
Outside of an 80-66 loss to Dayton in Hawaii last month UConn has beaten back all comers en route to a 7-1 mark.
Three newcomers have stepped in and played well. Freshman Caron Butler leads the team with 18.0 points per game, while junior-college transfer Johnnie Selvie is averaging 12.6 points per game off the bench. Highly touted freshman point guard Taliek Brown has stepped in as a starter and drastically eased the burden of losing Khalid El-Amin to the NBA.
Their success has opened things up for Albert Mouring as well. The senior shooting guard has averaged 17.8 points per game.
The Minutemen have had minimal time to prepare for the Sled Dogs. UMass assistant coach Mike Connors caught the first available flight back after Sunday's game to break down game tape for the Minutemen to study Monday.
Flint and the rest of the staff had some tape with them, which they studied before showing it to the team Monday.
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UNotes: The Huskies have won 73 consecutive games against non-conference foes from New England and hold a 64-38 all-time record over the Minutemen.
The current UGame agreement runs until the 2003-04 season. Next year's game will be at the Mullins Center.
he buzz of beating Arizona on Saturday still had some strength to it after UConn's practice at the Civic Center Monday.
There wasn't as much talk about the game as there was about what the No.11 Huskies took from the victory.
And that is, that they have to continue to play with the same level of intensity as in that high-energy affair at Gampel Pavilion to be where they want to be in March - in position to do something special.
"It's real important to play at that level because Arizona was No.5 in the country, we beat them and now people are going to be gunning for us,'' senior guard Albert Mouring said. "They know we're good if we beat Arizona. It can make a team's season starting [today] if they beat us. So we have to stay as focused as we were Saturday and play that way for the rest of the season.''
After that win, a struggling UMass team coming into the Civic Center tonight ought to test the Huskies. It could certainly make the Minutemen's season if they find themselves playing against a team still floating from Saturday.
UMass has struggled. On the cover of the UMass media guide is the catchphrase "just bring it.'' Well, the Minutemen asked and they have received to the tune of five losses in six games, including a 13-point loss to Holy Cross. The Huskies are 7-1, winners of six straight, coming off their biggest victory of the season and up four spaces in The Associated Press poll.
But this is the U Game. And more to the point, it's a rivalry, the 103rd meeting between the teams. A rivalry where one team being more fired up than the other, even an underdog, can be enough to put it over the top.
A loss here, before the Huskies begin a 10-day break with finals on the way, would be terrible. Not only would they have to stew on it for almost two weeks before they play again, it could be damaging to their psyches if they have a letdown after showing the nation how good they can be.
The players insist that won't happen because they believe they understand the importance of having the right mind-set now no matter the competition.
"I think everybody can stay at this level consistently,'' said freshman Caron Butler. "Was it the '94 Bulls or something that played just good enough to win because they always knew they were capable of winning? I'm not comparing this team to that team, but we have that same kind of mind-set and I see it on and off the court. Like when everybody knew we were playing Arizona, you should have seen how determined everyone was to win that game.
"You saw the look in everybody's eye. Everybody was on the same page. It wasn't like I was on page 61 and this dude was on page 14. It was like everybody was just there, everybody studied the game plan, everybody went over it and we were ready to play. Now that we know what we can do, I think everybody will stay together, the unity will stay the same and we'll pull through this season pretty well.''
Coach Jim Calhoun said he couldn't get a sense over the past couple of practices whether the team has maintained its level of intensity.
"I don't know,'' he said. "But I think they were all on the same page. We'll find out a lot more [tonight] when they throw the ball up because I think UMass, coming back here, they know this is something they can really pull off. We haven't been an overwhelming team all year. We've been a very good team, and we're getting better. We're a team that's climbing, getting better, but all that said, rivalries are good.''
A rivalry that has been, at times, intense. A rivalry that could burn the Huskies and everything they've said about maintaining a high level of play if they were just talking the talk.
"Of course, when you're playing a better a team, you'll be more hyped and ready to play,'' Mouring said. "But I think good basketball players, they come out there night after night and try to give it all they've got at the highest level. That's how you get good. If we can play at that level all the time, we can make a run at the Big East championship and the national championship when it's all said and done.''