MHERST - Steve Lappas has seen the symptoms many times before.
A senior starts to worry, not just about his game, but also the great unknown once he leaves the security of college. His first real job, be it on or off a basketball court, captures his thoughts. The real world is never an easy place.
And when the UMass coach pulled Kitwana Rhymer aside for a talk about these issues on Thursday, a day after the senior center watched the majority of a loss to Ohio State from the bench, Lappas soon discovered that he was on the right track.
Rhymer, who has scored two points in the last three games, and has suffered through perhaps the worst stretch of his UMass career, admitted that he has indeed been fretting himself to death.
``It's not a matter of whether or not he's trying, because Kit always tries,'' Lappas said yesterday, before the Minutemen boarded a bus for a ride to the Bronx for today's game at Fordham. ``But over the years I've seen a lot of seniors who get concerned about next year. Where do they go next?
``Kit already has his degree, so obviously it was important for him to come back and have a good year,'' he said. ``I just told him to ease up on himself, and try not to get so frustrated. There's no doubt in my mind that he will end up playing somewhere next year, so relax, and have some fun.''
That concept couldn't have been more removed Wednesday, as a benched Rhymer watched his teammates attempt to come back against the Buckeyes over the last eight minutes.
Whether Lappas' use of the bench as a motivational tool was effective remains to be seen, but Rhymer knows this much. The bench is no place for the Atlantic 10 Conference's reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
And defense, as well as Rhymer's solid track record as an offensive rebounder and put-back threat, may be the solution he needs to rediscover his offense.
It helps that today's game is in the Bronx, where the St. Thomas-born Rhymer spent his adolescence and attended St. Raymond's High School. He has historically played some of his best games in Rose Hill Gymnasium, with his family in the stands.
``I have to focus on what I'm good at, and that's rebounding, and keeping their big men off the glass,'' Rhymer said. ``I was hurt by the fact that I was on the bench the other night, but I understand. I just felt I could have done something to help - even playing defense at the very least.''
The Minutemen will need every facet of Rhymer's game today against Fordham's front line, which is one of the biggest in the Atlantic 10. But in the meantime, the center simply wants to take his coach's advice.
The real world can wait for another 2 months.
``He's right about that,'' said Rhymer. ``I have my sociology degree, and I'm wondering if I'm going to play ball somewhere after this. It definitely bothers you - how your life is going to turn out, but talking with coach definitely calmed me down.
``I've been expecting a whole lot more out of myself than I've been able to do,'' he said. ``I just have to relax, and have fun.''
MHERST - It's far too early in Atlantic 10 Conference play to say that anyone needs a victory. But when the University of Massachusetts plays Fordham on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Rose Hill Gymnasium, both teams really could use a win.
UMass (6-6, 0-1) has lost three straight games, while the Rams return home to Division I's oldest gym at 4-9 (0-2 A-10) following an 88-58 whipping at Xavier, their fifth straight defeat. Both need some success to build momentum.
Fordham wavers between fantastic, awful and several grades in between. Loaded with talent but short on discipline and chemistry, it's hard to know what to expect.
It makes the Rams a team opposing coaches hate to face, because on the nights that Fordham's talent does come together, the Rams are impressive. It just hasn't happened very often.
"They're tough to figure out," UMass coach Steve Lappas said. "I think they have talent. But they turn the ball over. They go up and down. They're going to press us the whole game probably. We can't turn the ball over."
Leading the Rams is sophomore point guard Smush Parker. The former New York playground legend transferred to the Bronx from Southern Idaho Junior College.
A 6-foot-4 Parker can be breathtaking. His assortment of flashy passes of the no-look and behind-the-back variety have dazzled fans and given him a 5.46 assists per game average, which is third best in the A-10. However, the combination of his forcing the ball at times and his teammates not being ready to receive it have resulted in a nation-high 5.3 give-aways per game.
"He gets a kick out of making a great pass and making his teammates better," Fordham coach Bob Hill said. "But the passes he makes on the West Fourth Street playground won't always be caught in the A-10."
Parker leads the Rams with 16.4 points per game.
"He's a really, really good player," Lappas said. "He plays the one, he plays the two (both guard spots). He's all over the place. He makes things happen. He's a guy we have to do a job on."
Despite having two point guards who are well shorter than Parker - Kyle Wilson (6-2) and Anthony Anderson (5-11) - Lappas isn't overly worried about the height discrepancy.
"If Parker is at the one (shooting guard), Anthony or Kyle is going to play him," Lappas said. "Hopefully they can use their advantages. They're a little closer to the ground and can put a little more pressure on him so he can't do what he wants."
Parker is not alone in Fordham's suspect ball-handlers club. The Rams have averaged 21.9 turnovers per game.
Lappas' starting lineup again will be a mystery and likely will remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Against Ohio State on Wednesday, UMass pressed and trapped more defensively, which requires more physical exertion. Lappas' rotation went 10 deep in that game to help support that style.
He planned to continue that strategy against the Rams.
Notes: UMass is trying to avoid going 0-2 in the Atlantic 10 for the first time since 1991-92. The Minutemen are 10-1 against the Rams since they joined the A-10, including 4-0 at Rose Hill. UMass leads the all-time series 16-6.