OUTH KINGSTOWN -- This is a season of firsts for new University of Massachusetts coach Steve Lappas.
The former Manhattan and Villanova coach made his first-ever trip to Olean, N.Y., last weekend. Today, he sees Keaney Gym for the first, and last, time. Later this month, he'll make his first trip to Xavier as he continues his first spin around the Atlantic 10.
"I've been to Rhode Island loads of times, but never to Keaney Gym," Lappas said. "Next year they have a new building, right? I guess I better win this time. I won't get another chance."
Lappas would be happy with any win as he attempts to right the ship at UMass this season. UMass (9-8, 3-3 Atlantic 10) is struggling to stay afloat this year as Lappas reworks a program that has fought to stay above .500 each of the previous three years.
Those were teams coached by James "Bruiser" Flint, who was let go last spring after posting an 86-72 record over five seasons. Like Rhode Island, UMass searched for a big-name coach to meet its lofty basketball aspirations, but found no takers. Instead, the Minutemen hired a proven winner in Lappas.
"This is a team that was .500 last year and lost a 2,000-point scorer" in Monty Mack, Lappas said. "And they were the lowest-scoring team in the league. We have some of the same problems scoring. We're a mystery from one game to the next."
Lappas's first UMass team has had its moments -- like a shocking win at North Carolina State -- but overall the Minutemen are a relatively average Atlantic 10 team. With a green group of perimeter players and post players whose production hasn't equaled their promise, Lappas has coached his way through plenty of frustrating nights.
"I expected it, but we're rebuilding a style, as well," Lappas said. "We have some veterans, but our entire perimeter are all first-year players except Shannon Crooks. They play like new players, if you know what I mean."
Lappas never really wanted to coach at UMass, or anywhere else besides Villanova. In nine seasons in Philly, Lappas led teams to four NCAA tournaments and three NITs. He stands sixth on the list of all-time Big East Conference wins.
But fans at Villanova grumbled when some of Lappas's best teams were upset in the NCAAs. When the last two settled for the NIT, the grumbling grew a bit too loud. Lappas read the tea leaves, and once he heard UMass had an opening and an interest in him, he jumped ship.
"I've enjoyed it here," he said. "Obviously, I'd like to be doing better, but the people have been great to me."
UMass will reshape its team in a major way next year. Lappas signed three recruits in the fall, has a good big man sitting out, and will welcome UConn transfer Marcus Cox and redshirt forward Jackoe Rogers into the fold next season. Anthony Andferson, Kyle Wilson and Brennan Martin have impressed at times this season.
"We'll have 10 new players in two years, really a completely different team," Lappas said. "We'll be starting all over again. It's a challenge, but I know we can win here."
UMASS Ht. PPG RPG
Shannon Crooks 6-2 15.1 3.4
Anthony Anderson 5-11 9.2 3.7
Kitwana Rhymer 6-10 8.5 5.8
Micah Brand 6-11 10.2 5.9
Raheim Lamb 6-5 5.6 3.3
Jameel Pugh 6-4 5.7 2.2
Eric Williams 6-8 5.3 4.8
Kyle Wilson 6-2 3.8 1.3
URI Ht. PPG RPG
Dinno Daniels 6-0 7.8 1.3
Howard Smith 6-0 3.7 2.4
Marcel Momplaisir 6-7 3.8 4.4
Lazare Adingono 6-6 8.4 5.1
Troy Wiley 6-8 14.5 4.2
Steve Mello 6-1 3.0 0.7
Dustin Hellenga 6-4 5.0 3.7
Brian Woodward 6-4 14.7 3.7
THE SCOUTING REPORT
MASSACHUSETTS (9-9, 3-4 Atlantic 10): The Minutemen come to town for the annual renewal of this long New England rivalry. The two schools first met in 1908. UMass hasn't played at Keaney Gym since 1992. The Minutemen won 7 of the 9 games since then played at the Dunkin' Donuts Center . . . Coming off an 83-68 loss at Dayton . . . Bothered by inconsistent guard play, averaging 15.2 turnovers and 14.2 assists. Shooting 41 percent from the field and averaging 65.3 points . . . Anderson and Crooks combined for more than half of the team's 3-pointers.
URI (5-13, 1-5): The Rams return to Keaney Gym to host long-time rival UMass. Schools have squared off every year since 1950. URI has lost four straight in the series. Rams are 3-3 at Keaney Gym this season . . . Leading scorer Wiley has a sore back but is expected to play. Wiley scored 12 points and Adingono hit for team-high 14 in a 71-58 loss at Saint Joe's on Thursday . . . Jim Baron is 6-15 against UMass in his career. The Rams were 1-6 this year and 1-7 last season in the month of January.
WHERE: Keaney Gym, 2 p.m. SERIES: UMass leads, 67-49. LAST MEETING: UMass won twice last year. TV-RADIO: WHJJ (920) WADK-FM
teve Lappas huddled his players before a Mullins Center blackboard Wednesday afternoon. Then the University of Massachusetts coach pulled out a marker and described in two words the current state of Minuteman basketball.
Needless to say, it didn't go over well.
''I stopped for about 10 seconds, and wrote under those two words another word - unless,'' said Lappas, the day after the Minutemen's 83-68 home loss to Dayton, which raced to a 13-0 lead then ran off another 17 straight points before the first half expired.
''After I wrote `unless' on the board, I said to them, `See, I didn't say we stink, period,''' added Lappas, who was hired prior to the season to vault a program back to the national prominence it experienced in the 1990s.
''I said to them, `We stink unless we play defensively with an absolute passion and vengeance and rebound with passion and vengeance,''' said Lappas. ''We're not good enough offensively right now, so we have to play hard every second, and if someone has a 10-0 run on us, we're in trouble.''
The Minutemen are 9-9 overall, 3-4 in the Atlantic 10, and face A-10 rival Rhode Island (1-6, 5-13) today.
UMass has won its last four games against URI, but Lappas knows he can't rely on much from one game to the next.
''We're trying to keep their hopes up,'' he said. ''Every team is going to have five games a year where the energy isn't there, but the good teams find a way to win. We are not a team that can have a game like that if we're not as sharp on the defensive end.''
If play could be described by scent, Lappas is correct. On Tuesday, UMass was similar to that stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike by the petroleum tanks in Perth Amboy. The Minutemen shot 21 percent in the first half, didn't score for the first 6 minutes 16 seconds of the game, and were outrebounded, 25-8, before intermission.
The defeat typified an up-and-down season for UMass, which entered the game after winning at St. Bonaventure last Saturday for the first time in five years.
''We lost a little bit of our edge and we thought we were better than we were,'' said Lappas of the Dayton game. ''A lot of these guys have achieved mediocre success in their careers and don't know what to do to sustain things.''
Today's game against URI, which has the worst record in the A-10 East Division, is first in a pivotal five-game stretch for UMass. After URI, the Minutemen travel to Duquesne Wednesday then host LaSalle and St. Bonaventure before a game at Temple.
Those five contests will go far in determining whether the Minutemen can salvage the season or will remain mired in a win-some-lose-some state.
''I know where this program is going. [The next five games] will not make or break this program, but it will make or break how our seniors finish their careers,'' said Lappas.
Teams at .500 are often difficult to motivate. They have just as much proof they can do things well as poorly. How a coach approaches the situation often determines whether the players see things as half full or half empty.
Lappas is aware of this. Meanwhile, he's trying to implement changes for the long haul. Normally, he said, at this stage of the season a coach would expect a team to empower itself.
''Not in this situation, where we're teaching new things every day,'' he said. ''We're doing new things with our offense and we're concentrating on new things each day. One day we'll work on cutting. Then screening. Then how to use a screen. The thing is, things have to be repeated over and over. When you're putting in a new offense things have to be taught in drills.''
To complicate matters, Micah Brand, the team's second-leading scorer, suffered a left ankle injury in the first half of the Dayton game. He is doubtful for today's game.
MHERST - As of 3 p.m. Friday, University of Massachusetts coach Steve Lappas wasn't sure what his starting lineup would be Saturday. He might not know until 1:50 p.m., 10 minutes before the Minutemen tip off with Rhode Island in Kingston, R.I.
The uncertainty stems from the absence of junior big man Micah Brand, who sprained an ankle during Tuesday's 83-68 loss to Dayton.
Lappas used both sophomore Raheim Lamb and senior Eric Williams at the power forward slot Friday in practice. Either one has disadvantages, as Lamb would make the Minutemen small, while Williams would make them slow.
"One of those two guys will definitely be the four," Lappas said. "I want to wait and see who they start. If they go big, we can go big. If they go small, then we can go small. I don't know yet."
Whether Lamb starts or comes off the bench, he has the potential to pick up some of the offense missing without Brand's 10.2 points per game. Lamb and Lappas both said he needs to be more involved offensively.
"Coach told me he wants me to look for my shot more," Lamb said. "Anywhere inside the perimeter I can hit. I just have to look for it more.
Lappas said he's wanted more offensive out of Lamb regardless to Brand's health.
"I've wanted Chops (Lamb) to look for his shot more all year," Lappas said.
It's not just Lamb, either.
"Chops, Anthony Anderson, and Kyle Wilson all have to look for their shot more," he said. "We have guys that are playing for the first time, and at this level you have to look for your shot before you catch the ball. That's what a lot of these new guys don't have a feel for yet. If you catch it and then look for your shot, it's too late. Guys are on you. That's our inexperience, that they don't see the shot before it comes."
Brand isn't the only injury concern. Freshman guard Kyle Wilson is expected to play, but he's still battling his sprained ankle and is not 100 percent.
"I had to stop him," Lappas said. "The last half hour (of practice) I had him out because he was hobbling a little bit."
The game is the Minutemen's first trip to Keaney Gymnasium since 1992. The two teams have played their annual game in the Providence Civic Center for the past nine seasons, but the Rams have moved all of their games back into the 3,385-seat on-campus facility for one year before the 8,000-seat Ryan Center opens next year.
The Rams enter the game at 5-13 (1-6 A-10), but have been better recently. They surprised George Washington last weekend on the road, 75-62, and hung with Saint Joseph's for most of the way before the Hawks pulled away, 71-58.
Jim Baron, whom UMass fans had gotten used to seeing on the St. Bonaventure sidelines, is now in charge in Kingston, having replaced Jerry DeGregorio, whose two-year tenure was short on wins and long on tumult.
Baron enjoyed watching his team celebrate the win over GW. "I'm very happy. You look at a team that in the past has had tough times lately," Baron said. "They won only seven last year and five two years ago. A lot of it is building and we have continued to build."
Rhode Island's recent improvement can be tied somewhat to the arrival and improvement of junior Troy Wiley, who transferred to the Rams from Paris Junior College in Texas. The 6-7 forward has given Rhody more of a presence inside. His 14.8 points per game leads the Rams. He and fellow big man Marcus Evans both were academically ineligible first semester, but are back in action now.
"It's extremely helpful to have two big guys," Baron said. "It's important for rebounding the basketball and defending."
"Wiley is a good player," Lappas said. "He's probably their best player, so they're a much different team than they were earlier in the year. You're going to see them play a lot better."
Freshman guard Dustin Hellenga is the Rams only other double-digit scorer, with 10.4 points per game, while his 4.5 rebounds per game leads a team that can be soft in that department.
NOTES: The A-10 television network is broadcasting the game locally on Fox Sports New England. UMass is winless on A-10 TV so far this year. ... Former Minuteman guard Michael Williams was at UMass practice Friday afternoon. He is looking into returning to school to finish his degree.