ight now the positive signs are measured in small, intangible ways that only a coach could love.
UMass has lost five straight games heading into today's annual blood-letting against Temple in Amherst (noon, ESPN). Suffice it to say, the Minutemen have been in better form in years past to host the Owls.
But UMass coach Steve Lappas and his assistants, when looking for signs of morale slippage, have been surprised by what they have seen this week.
Though the Minutemen (6-8) are now 0-3 in the Atlantic 10, they haven't practiced like a team in a tailspin. UMass assistant John Leonard said those spirits have, if anything, picked up.
``They're very focused, they continue to work hard, they're attentive, and they seem to be in a good frame of mind,'' Leonard said following yesterday's practice. ``Everyone believes in what we're trying to do. All it takes is one win to get it going back in the right direction.''
Temple seems to have managed just that since the start of conference play. Though the Owls (6-9, 3-1 A-10) stumbled in the face of a St. Bonaventure 3-point barrage during a loss on Wednesday, they also ran off wins over Fordham, Duquesne and Rhode Island to open the A-10 schedule.
The Minutemen, conversely, are off to their worst conference start since the 1988-89 season, when John Calipari's first UMass team dropped its first five conference games.
Lappas & Co. have no reason to believe that this season's team has dropped to that low level, however. Somewhere, tucked in with the disappointment of the last five games, is a team that also opened the season with four straight wins.
``I see a lot of similarities in the way we played back then and the way we played (against Richmond),'' Leonard said of UMass' most recent loss Wednesday night. ``But we're not making as many shots as we did then.''
One encouraging sign from the Richmond game was the improved play of center Kitwana Rhymer, who is struggling through the worst slump of his UMass career.
``Kit played very well, but we need more. We need everyone to get into the flow again,'' Leonard said.
Temple is scoring at a quicker pace this season, with senior Lynn Greer off to a sensational start with averages of 22.1 points and 4.7 assists per game.
MHERST - University of Massachusetts coach Steve Lappas said the key to beating Temple and its vaunted matchup zone isn't a secret.
Lappas and Temple coach John Chaney have matched up five times previously as part of Philadelphia's Big 5 rivalry, with Chaney winning three times to Lappas' two.
"I definitely know what to do against them; we've always had success getting shots," Lappas said. "We won the games when we made them. They make you make shots. When we've had some success against them, we've made seven or more threes. Those are going to be the best shots you're going to get. You're not going to get much inside.
"You have to try to get the ball to the foul line area, drive the gaps, make splits between two guys," Lappas continued. "It doesn't have to be threes, but you have make jump shots, whether it's 15-footers or 18-footers."
Knowing how may be half the battle, but executing it is another story altogether. St. Bonaventure beat Temple (6-9, 3-1 A-10) on Wednesday, 93-73, by bombing away from outside and making 19 threes.
Duplicating that would be an extremely difficult task for the Minutemen (6-8, 0-3 Atlantic 10), who play host to the Owls at noon Saturday. Only once this season has UMass combined to hit 19 threes in three consecutive games, let alone one.
Lappas will regularly use three guards Saturday, adding Kyle Wilson to the backcourt with Anthony Anderson and Shannon Crooks and giving UMass three players at least capable of knocking down jump shots.
Temple has had to juggle its lineup of late as well. Injuries to starters Alex Wesby (wrist) and Ron Rollerson (groin) has left the Owls woefully lacking in depth. Wesby is out, while Rollerson is questionable, leaving Temple with center Kevin Lyde and four players 6-foot-4 or shorter.
One player who is used to an abundance of minutes for the Owls is senior Lynn Greer. The senior point guard is leading Temple at 22.1 points and 4.7 assists per game. He's scored in double figures in 35 straight games and has 1,712 career points.
UMass senior Shannon Crooks was looking forward to guarding Greer.
"You have to really, really respect his jumper," Crooks said. "I hope (Lappas) would put me on Lynn. I've played him in the past and I think I've done a pretty good job on him."
Greer is joined in Temple's three-guard backcourt by rookies Brian Polk and Nile Murry. Polk, a sophomore who sat out last year due to academics, and Murry, a freshman, have both stepped up their production of late.
The absence of Rollerson has moved David Hawkins, who is normally a guard, to power forward. He was academically ineligible in the fall, but has averaged 14.2 points per game since he returned.
Chaney has been pleased with the development of his guards.
"We've always wanted to have three guards that can dribble, pass, and shoot," Chaney said. "I think we have that now, especially with the shooting. Nile will be very instrumental for us. Nile has developed a lot more poise, the way he's handling the pressure. Brian's given us a lift when we really needed it with so many guys out."
Kitwana Rhymer and Micah Brand will start up front, but because of Temple's small lineup, Lappas said he planned to use 6-5 Raheim Lamb in stretches at power forward again, to counteract the Owls' perimeter quickness.
When the Minutemen do use two big men, Lappas will try to get the 6-11 Brand the ball while he's in position to make jumpers over the shorter defenders.
"We think he can make that 12-foot jumper," Lappas said. "It's going to be in the corner or the elbow a lot of times."
The Minutemen are coming off five straight losses, but showed some positive signs against Richmond, as Rhymer had seven points and nine rebounds, drastic improvements from his recent output. The senior center believes UMass is a little luck away from getting back on track.
"After the last game, I was saying to myself 'Just give us one break,'" Rhymer said. "Just one break and we'll be fine. We'll be all right."
"We just need something to happen for us," he said. "Guys are keeping at it. At different times we've lost our focus and it's cost us. We're trying to stay at it and don't give up faith."