MHERST — As if the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team doesn't have enough problems, North Carolina is more confident than ever.
Not just because the 14th-ranked Tar Heels are playing what amounts to a home game against the Minutemen, but because Saturday's 80-70 win at UCLA convinced them that they're on the right track.
That's a track the derailed Minutemen have been looking for all season. After a 12-day break, they will try again in tomorrow's Tournament of Champions semifinal at the Charlotte (N.C.) Coliseum.
"The break gave us a good chance to work on some things," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint, who claims his players are excited about a game that goes shoulder-to-shoulder with the Connecticut matchup as UMass' toughest this year.
"You've got to be excited," Flint said. "There are only a few places in college basketball that everybody talks about, and North Carolina is one of them."
It's not just the records — a 7-2 mark for the Tar Heels, a 2-7 clip for the Minutemen — that dramatizes the opposite directions these programs have gone.
North Carolina, a Final Four team last season, has won four straight. The Tar Heels told reporters after the UCLA victory that beating the Bruins was huge.
"That was our first really big win of the year, especially on the road," Jason Capel said. "Now we have confidence."
Capel is one of a cast of stars on Matt Doherty's first team as Tar Heels' coach. The 6-foot-8 junior, averaging 9.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, is a candidate for the Wooden Award as the nation's top player, as are teammates Brendan Haywood and Joseph Forte.
Haywood, a 7-foot senior, is shooting 64.5 percent from the floor and averaging 14.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.3 blocked shots per game. He recorded the first triple double in school history with 18 points, 14 rebounds and a school-record 10 blocked shots against Miami Dec. 4.
Capel logged the second triple-double with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists against Buffalo Dec. 17.
But North Carolina's most dangerous player may be Forte, a 6-4 sophomore who is averaging 20.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Last year's Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year had 29 points against UCLA.
Added to the mix are 6-11 junior Kris Lang (15.2 ppg., 5.9 rpg., 61.5 percent shooting) and 6-2 sophomore Ronald Curry.
For good measure, North Carolina has also added Julius Peppers, a 6-6, 270-pound sophomore who plays defensive end on the Tar Heels' football team. His 2000-2001 basketball debut was a six-point, four-rebound effort in 12 minutes at UCLA.
Curry, a quarterback, is another two-sport star, though the point guard struggled with eight turnovers against UCLA's press.
The two-day Tournament of Champions also includes Richmond (7-1) and College of Charleston (8-1), and right now, UMass looks uncomfortably out of place. Richmond, which joins the Atlantic 10 next season, has won six straight, beating Mississippi State and George Washington along the way.
The Spiders' loss was 69-61 to a Wake Forest team that's fourth-ranked. Richmond received four points in this week's Associated Press poll, and Charleston, with five straight wins, drew one 25th-place vote.
Only UMass was absent. The Minutemen have lost seven of eight and have long stopped thinking about rankings. They admit they're looking at the upcoming Atlantic 10 schedule as a chance for redemption.
"This tournament gives us a good time to work on some stuff for the conference season," Flint said. "We have time to put in a game plan, but they're a big team and a tough team. They're North Carolina."
HARLOTTE, N.C. — Bruiser Flint says beating North Carolina tonight won't take a perfect effort by the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team.
But it will likely involve a different look.
"Don't get me wrong, they have good players," Flint said. "But this is not North Carolina with Michael Jordan and James Worthy, or even the Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse and Vince Carter teams."
Brave words from a coach whose 2-7 team faces the 14th-ranked Tar Heels (7-2) at the Charlotte Coliseum. The 9:15 game follows the Richmond-College of Charleston semifinal opener of the Tournament of Champions, which concludes with tomorrow night's consolation and championship games.
Tonight, UMass is ready to roll out a strategy the Minutemen have used only occasionally in recent years: zone defense. Against a North Carolina team of national stars like Jason Capel, Joseph Forte and Brendan Haywood, the idea of one-on-one matchups is hardly appealing.
"We've had some breakdowns in man-to-man, and I think when we play zone, we play it pretty well," point guard Shannon Crooks said. "I think any little change wouldn't hurt us and might help. You never know."
Flint has never liked playing zone, partly because he believes it hurts a team's rebounding. But at this point, almost anything seems worth a try, and the Minutemen have been working on zone — not just for tonight, but for the Atlantic 10 Conference schedule that opens next week.
"We've found ourselves with some bad matchups in man-to-man, especially at the 4 (power forward) spot," Flint said. "But we'll see how well we play zone, because we haven't played it against anybody but ourselves. And it's different when you practice against your own offense, which you already know."
"It worked well when we used it against Temple in the A-10 tournament last year, even though we lost," said Crooks, who predicts an active, extended zone. The Minutemen also hope first-year players Eric Williams, Jackie Rogers, Willie Jenkins and Jameel Pugh are more comfortable without the demands of constant man-to-man assignments.
After a one-game lapse, Micah Brand will return to a UMass starting lineup that has offensive problems, too. The Minutemen are shooting 39.8 percent from the floor and 30.4 percent from 3-point range, down about three percentage points from last year in each category.
"We've shot badly before, but not this badly," said Flint, whose team is also slightly behind last year's pace (63.3 percent to 65) at the foul line.
Crooks has labored at the point, producing nearly as many turnovers (26) as assists (27). And after averaging 19.5 points in his first two games, he's scored 9.1 per game in his last seven.
To bolster its attitude, UMass players spoke with sports psychologist Joseph Carr this week. Flint didn't give details, but he knows the Minutemen's biggest test might be keeping its confidence in the face of a big-name opponent and a hostile crowd.
North Carolina is the latest challenge for a UMass team whose schedule ranked as America's sixth toughest as of Dec. 25 — which doesn't even include tonight's demanding task.
The Minutemen have had 12 days to prepare for this one, which Flint thinks has helped, though he admits he's not sure.
"Ever hear what (Penn State football coach) Joe Paterno said?" Flint asked rhetorically. "He said you practice all week, walk through plays, put stuff on the chalkboard, then cross your fingers and hope. I thought we were as ready as ever against Connecticut (an 82-67 loss), so you never know."
HARLOTTE, N.C. - For the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team, it's hard to imagine any scenario for optimism surrounding Friday's 9 p.m. game against North Carolina.
The game at the Charlotte Coliseum is part of the Hardee's Tournament of Champions. Richmond plays the College of Charleston in the 7 p.m. game. The winners face each other, as do the losers, on Saturday.
The Tar Heels, who are ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press weekly top 25 poll, present a tough task for UMass. Despite the event's name, the Minutemen haven't played much like champions so far this year, stumbling out of 2000 at 2-7.
They will have a much better shot at pulling off an upset if senior guard Monty Mack found his shooting stroke in his Christmas stocking. The preseason favorite to be Atlantic 10 player of the year has shot just 27.7 percent this season, while averaging 15.4 points per game.
Since UMass last played 12 days ago, Mack has worked diligently on his shooting and has been pleased with the results.
"I've been shooting it pretty well, feeling good," said Mack, who admitted that hitting his first shot would go a long way toward giving him early confidence. "If that first one goes in, I can get a little rhythm going."
The Tar Heels made the trip west from Chapel Hill with a 7-2 record in coach Matt Doherty's first season. Only No. 1 Michigan State and Kentucky have beaten them.
UNC has relied on the inside-outside combination of senior center Brendan Haywood and sophomore guard Joseph Forte.
With a lack of true centers in the NCAA, Haywood's 7-foot, 268-pound bulk has enticed NBA scouts and bowled over opponents. He is averaging 14.2 points per game and 8.1 rebounds. His 68.5 shooting percentage includes a lot of dunks, as opponents have struggled to stop him when he gets the ball down low.
UMass center Kitwana Rhymer is generously listed at 6-10 and matches up sizewise better than most against Haywood, but the Minutemen will use a zone to try to deny Haywood the ball.
"Teams that have played zone against them have had some success," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint. "We want to play a little zone and keep our big guys on the court and I think we can get some transition baskets in the zone. We're not just doing it for this game, we're thinking about playing a little more zone the rest of the year."
Forte and Clemson's Will Solomon likely will battle all year for the Atlantic Coast Conference's scoring lead. Forte is currently No. 2 at 20.1 ppg to the Solomon's 20.3 ppg. If Forte can score over the UMass zone, it eventually could open up things for Haywood.
Sophomore point guard Ronald Curry, who doubles as the Tar Heel football team's quarterback, will be playing his fifth game now that football is behind him. He has averaged 4.8 points per game since his return.
The Minutemen have played the Tar Heels twice in the John Calipari/Bruiser Flint era, with both teams winning once, but this is the first time on Tobacco Road. While Charlotte isn't as powder blue as Chapel Hill, the home of the NBA's Hornets will be very pro-UNC.
Despite the atmosphere and Carolina's rich basketball history, Flint doesn't think his team will be overwhelmed by its surroundings.
"We've played games like this," Flint said. "I don't think we're going in saying, 'Oh my god, we're playing North Carolina. We've played teams that are ranked, so we're not going here in awe."
Though his team has struggled, Flint said it doesn't need a perfect performance to win.
"This is not the North Carolina team of (Michael) Jordan and (James) Worthy. They have good players, don't get me wrong, but it's not even the North Carolina team of (Rasheed) Wallace and (Jerry) Stackhouse."
Still, Mack said playing Carolina is special.
"It's North Carolina, you have to be up for games like this," Mack said. "If you're a player, you live and die for games like this and you have to go in and play your hardest."
* * *
NOTE: After a one-game experiment with Ronell Blizzard, sophomore Micah Brand will return to the starting lineup.
HAPEL HILL -- Finally, beginning tonight, the North Carolina basketball season might have some flow to it.
The Heels (7-2) will play Massachusetts (2-7) at about 9:15 p.m. at the Charlotte Coliseum, just after the completion of the opening game between Richmond (7-1) and the College of Charleston (8-1). The winners will meet at about the same time Saturday night for the championship of the Food Lion MVP classic.
These next two games and Tuesday's ACC opener at Georgia Tech mean Carolina finally will play something -- three games in five days -- that feels like a real season.
"It'll be nice to really get going," forward Jason Capel said after Saturday's 80-70 win at UCLA.
After the win over the Bruins, the Heels had five days off between games. Before UCLA, it had been six days off since a win over Buffalo. Before that, UNC had seven days off after a win over Texas A&M.
Given that schedule, it has been hard to get a flow going.
"You can't control it," UNC coach Matt Doherty said. "But then, all of a sudden, after Christmas, it's a heck of a flow. I just hope it's a positive flow."
UMass already has been through a six-game losing streak. The Minutemen -- whose wins came over Iona and Boston University and who lost to Holy Cross and Marquette, among others -- are led by senior guard Monty Mack, who is averaging 15.4 points per game.
PERSONAL FOUL: Kris Lang and the Tar Heels didn't get to watch Stanford's win over then-No. 1 Duke last week because they were en route to Los Angeles. But Lang heard about the Cardinal's win and about how Duke's Shane Battier -- a preseason national player of the year candidate with a sparkling reputation -- fouled out.
"I can't believe they actually fouled out the Golden Boy," Lang said. "I was really surprised they fouled out the Golden Boy. That was shocking."
NOTES: UNC guard Joseph Forte shared ACC player of the week honors with Maryland's Lonny Baxter. That gives the Heels three consecutive winners; Brendan Haywood and Capel also won. ... Carolina is 18-2 in this event, with losses coming to South Carolina in 1990 and the College of Charleston in '98.
t Charlotte Coliseum
North Carolina vs. Massachusetts, 9:15 p.m.
Championship, 9:15 p.m.
Top players: Forward Greg Stevenson, a Fayetteville native who transferred from Penn State, leads the Spiders, averaging 19 points. Guard Reggie Brown averages 17.6 points and Kinte Smith 12.
The skinny: The Spiders have won six in a row since playing fourth-ranked Wake Forest closer than any other team this season (a 69-61 loss in which Richmond trailed by two with one minute, 17 seconds to play).
North Carolina (7-2)
Top players: Sophomore Joseph Forte is averaging 20 points after a strong 29-point performance at UCLA. Center Brendan Haywood has run hot and cold and averages 14 points. Forward Kris Lang has is off to a strong start, scoring 16 ppg.
The skinny: North Carolina has owned this event, compiling an 18-2 record in 10 appearances.
Conference: Atlantic 10.
Top players: Guard Monty Mack, a first-team All-Atlantic 10 player last season, is averaging 15.4 points but has averaged nine points in the past three games. Guards Jonathan DePina and Shannon Crooks have had big games but are inconsistent.
The skinny:UMass has lost seven of its past eight games, its slowest start in 15 years.
College of Charleston (8-1)
Top players: Center Jody Lumpkin is a powerful force in the middle, averaging 15.9 points and five rebounds. He forces opposing teams to focus their defense on him. Guard Jeff Bolton averages 14.7 points.
The skinny: The Cougars are riding a five-game winning streak.
HAPEL HILL -- The University of Massachusetts will bring a big-time name to tonight's 9:15 game against North Carolina at the Charlotte Coliseum.
UMass played in the Final Four in 1996. But so far this season the Minutemen (2-7) do not have a big-time game.
Richmond (7-1) will play the College of Charleston (8-1) in the first game of the Hardee's Tournament of Champions, starting at 7 p.m.
Friday's two winning teams will meet in the second game Saturday for the championship. Friday's losers play in the consolation round, starting at 7 p.m.
Misled by their guards, according to UMass coach James "Bruiser" Flint, the Minutemen have faltered badly at times.
Shannon Crook and Monty Mack are the starting guards and chief offenders on Flint's list.
"Our guard play has been bad," Flint said. "If our guards played better, we'd have a different record. It's got to be much better."
Mack averaged 19.8 points per game last year. He is in a shooting slump this season, making a meager 27.7 percent of his shots.
"Monty is playing too straight up and down on defense and on offense," Flint said. "He has to get his legs more into his shots. He's standing out there, and that's also why he hasn't been doing a good job on defense."
Cook has not shown he can value the ball, Flint said.
"Shannon has to have a better understanding of what we're trying to do," Flint said. "He has 27 assists and 26 turnovers. That kind of sums it up right there.
"He's only shooting 38 percent from the field. His decision making has got to be better."
Better thinking will lead to better performances, Flint said.
"If his decision making gets better," Flint said, "his shooting percentage will go up. He turns it over because of his shot selection."
Carolina's Matt Doherty can sympathize. He's been searching for a starting point guard all year, and the journey has been fraught with inconsistencies.
But there has been promise as well.
Doherty tried two freshmen, each with some obvious strengths and weaknesses. Neither appears ready.
So Doherty is now using redshirt sophomore Ronald Curry at the point.
Just last Saturday, Curry committed eight turnovers against UCLA. Curry came out of the game for awhile in the second half after a series of turnovers.
But then Curry returned and showed why he is the answer.
He made an excellent defensive play down the stretch to help UNC win the game.
Of course, UNC's other guard did all right against the Bruins. Joseph Forte scored 29 points on 10-of-20 shooting.
What Doherty would like is for the point guards to turn the ball over less and get it inside more for close-range shots.
Center Brendan Haywood leads the ACC in field-goal percentage, shooting 64.5 percent from the floor. The problem is that Haywood continues to take too few shots.
At the season's outset, Haywood and Doherty agreed that the senior from Greensboro should take more shots.
Yet Haywood has taken 76 shots compared to Duke center Carlos Boozer's 102. Haywood's teammate and UNC forward Kris Lang has taken 104 shots.
Haywood shot the ball down the stretch a year ago in the NCAA tournament, and that helped Carolina make it to the Final Four.
Working the ball inside first and then out to the perimeter is a fundamental of basketball at UNC through the years.
There is no doubt this team is built around its inside game. Haywood just needs to take more advantage of his size and position on the court.
As for this weekend's games, the Tar Heels (7-2) would help their cause greatly with two victories. They would be almost halfway home to the magic 20 wins and an NCAA tournament bid.
And as the Tar Heels proved once again last season, the NCAA tournament is what counts in this game.