HILADELPHIA - UMass coach Steve Lappas, after watching his Minutemen fall just short of St. Bonaventure Wednesday night at the Mullins Center, is finding it very difficult to see beyond the frustrating glut of his team's shortcomings and mistakes.
That's not good news with the Minutemen (10-12, 4-7 Atlantic 10) facing their most important road trip of the conference schedule - an extended stay in Philadelphia that begins with today's game against Temple and concludes Tuesday at St. Joseph's. The Hawks and Owls are 1-2 in the A-10's East Division.
In the case of Wednesday's loss, the Minutemen once again were undone by the inconsistency of their two big men, Micah Brand and Kitwana Rhymer. That said, the Minutemen have also strung together two of their best defensive efforts of the season against St. Bonaventure and in a victory over La Salle.
``We've held people to 34 percent and 30 percent shooting over the last two games, and even at that we went 1-1 in both games,'' said Lappas. ``We've played very good defense.''
At the same time, the Minutemen only took four free throws against the Bonnies - a mixture of curious officiating and the Minutemen's over-reliance on jump shots, not to mention the lack of assertion by their inside people.
Enter Temple, which is clearly playing its best basketball of the season.
Like last year, prior to the Owls' run to the Elite Eight, Temple is once again being counted out of the NCAA tournament because of spotty play that has led to an overall record of 10-13.
The Minutemen contributed to Temple's mark with one of their finest wins of the season on Jan. 19. That 83-53 UMass victory followed a four-game Temple losing streak that dropped the Owls to 6-12 - their worst start ever under John Chaney.
The Minutemen shot 11-of-23 from 3-point range, including 5-of-7 from Kyle Wilson (career-high 17 points), to make the win possible.
Wilson's play has since tailed off and the freshman guard's playing time has decreased as a result. But the Minutemen will need that kind of efficiency from downtown if they are to have any hope once again today.
oday at 1 p.m., the Liacouras Center.
· TV/radio: Channel 6; WPHT-AM (1210).
· Records: Temple, 10-13 overall, 7-4 Atlantic Ten; Massachusetts, 10-12, 4-7.
· Coaches: Temple, John Chaney (20th season, 442-191); Massachusetts, Steve Lappas (first season).
· Key players: For Temple, Lynn Greer, G, 6-2, Sr. (22.6 ppg., 4.4 assists); Kevin Lyde, C, 6-9, Sr. (7.6 ppg., 7.6 rpg.); David Hawkins, F, 6-5, Soph. (15.9 ppg., 5.3 rpg.); Alex Wesby, F, 6-6, Sr. (10.9 ppg., 5.6 rpg.).
For Massachusetts, Shannon Crooks, G, 6-2, Sr. (14.7 ppg.); Anthony Anderson, G, 5-11, Soph. (9.7 ppg.); Micah Brand, F, 6-11, Jr. (9.7 ppg., 5.8 rpg.).
· Temple update: On Wednesday, the Owls let go of a 14-point lead in the second half and lost at La Salle, 71-67. The defeat ended a four-game winning streak as well as a 10-game winning streak against the Explorers dating from 1992. It also dropped Temple to 0-3 in City Series play. (The win over St. Joseph's doesn't count in the Big Five standings. The March 3 game with the Hawks will count.)
· Massachusetts preview: Lappas returns to the city for a game for the first time since he left Villanova after last season. His Minutemen have lost four of their last five games.
battle of sub .500 teams couldn't have been what ABC had in mind when it put the University of Massachusetts and Temple on their schedule at 1 p.m. Saturday.
But while it might not be a ratings bonanza (some of the country will see Georgia Tech and Saint Louis), the game will be big for two teams with waning postseason hopes.
The Minutemen are teetering on the brink of ending their 12-season streak of above .500 records in the Atlantic 10. At 4-7 in the league, the Minutemen need to win their five remaining games to finish 9-7.
UMass would need significant collapses from both Temple and St. Bonaventure to finish in the top two in the A-10 East to earn a first round bye in next month's Atlantic 10 Tournament. No team has ever won the tournament, and with it an automatic NCAA bid, or even made it to the championship game without a first round bye.
In an A-10 that has been inconsistent, this is a year those streaks could be broken, but a more realistic postseason aspiration for UMass would be the National Invitation Tournament.
That won't be easy either. To be eligible for the newly expanded-to-40-team field, UMass has to get above .500.
If the Minutemen were to go 3-2 in their final five regular season games, they'd have to advance at least to the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament just to finish 15-15.
Even if they did, there is no guarantee the NIT would select them.
Temple is in better shape than the Minutemen when it comes to winning the A-10 Tournament, but a longer shot to make the NIT.
At 7-4, the Owls are a half game ahead of St. Bonaventure (7-5) in second place. If Temple holds off the Bonnies, the Owls would earn the bye and realistically keep themselves in contention for winning the conference tourney.
But Temple's final five games are tougher than St. Bonaventure's.
While the two play each other Feb. 23, the Owls play UMass, Xavier, Dayton and Saint Joseph's, while the Bonnies have less imposing Fordham and Rhode Island along with St. Joe's.
If the Owls were to go 3-2 to finish the regular season, they would have to get to the Atlantic 10 Tournament finals to have a chance of making the NIT.
Chaney not happy
Prior to Wednesday's loss to La Salle, the Owls had won four straight. But coach John Chaney was far from happy.
"We're winning games when we shoot the ball well," he said Monday. "We're not playing well on defense. We need to win when we don't shoot well."
Those words proved prophetic as the Owls blew a 14-point second half lead Wednesday in the loss to the Explorers.
"We're not a very smart team," Chaney told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "We've not learned how to win games from defensive stops. It's my worst team absolutely as far as defensive changes. We have not one time taken a charge. That, to me, is a gutless team."
He then added a vintage Chaney quote.
"They're just not players who are blood-and-guts players," Chaney said. "They're just offensive players. I will never recruit players like that. I need players who take out the garbage and the trash and don't let people eat your food."
Kyle Wilson ate his food on Jan. 19. His 17 points led the Minutemen, who bombed away from the outside hitting 11 3-pointers and defeating the Owls, 63-53.
"I'll come in with the mentality to try to help the team as best as I can by making open shots and things like that," Wilson said. "I'm sure they'll shade me in the zone a little bit more and keep a hand up and try to make sure I don't get a shot off. I'll try to get in the lane, dish to my teammates and try to get them some shots."
Despite the loss last time, UMass coach Steve Lappas doesn't expect the Owls to fundamentally change what they do.
"They haven't changed in the past 15 years. I don't expect them to change now. They do what they do," Lappas said.
"Maybe they'll have more concern for the guys shooting the ball than they did at that time because we have shot better since then," Lappas said. "They may come out a little further and play a little more aggressive on the perimeter, but that's stuff John Chaney would want them to do anyway."
The game marks Lappas' first game in Philadelphia as the coach of the Minutemen after leaving Villanova last year.
"We're going to be seeing a lot of friends when we're down there," Lappas said. "While we're down there we have plans every night with our friends. We'll probably have a lot of people at the Temple game."
esperation is not a word that Massachusetts men's basketball coach Steve Lappas uses when speaking of his team's mental focus going into its final five games of the season. The Minutemen sit five games behind St. Joseph's for the top spot in the Atlantic 10 East Division and three games behind Temple for the all-important second spot, which includes a first round bye in the conference tournament. UMass is not desperate; it just knows that it must win.
"Every game has been a must win for us for a while," said Lappas yesterday, prior to setting off for a pair of crucial contests in Philadelphia.
On Saturday, afternoon the Minutemen (10-12, 4-7 A-10) will look to make it a perfect 2-for-2 for the season against Temple (10-13, 7-4 A-10) when the two teams tip off at the Liacouras Center. Back on Jan. 19, the Minutemen snapped a five-game losing streak with a 63-53 triumph over the Owls at the Mullins Center. Freshman Kyle Wilson was the star on that day scoring a career-high 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting and UMass knocked down 44-percent of its shots from behind the 3-point arc to pull out the victory. While Wilson and his fellow backcourt mates may have caught John Chaney and the Temple defense off guard on that day, Lappas expects the Owls to be prepared on Saturday.
"I think they'll be more aggressive on the perimeter," he said. "They are going to have more concern for guys shooting the ball."
Despite the result of the last meeting between these two A-10 rivals and Temple's loss to LaSalle on Wednesday night, which snapped a four-game winning streak, the Owls will stick with their famous match-up zone that has frustrated opponents for more than a decade.
"They haven't changed their defense in 15 years," Lappas said. "They're going to do what they do."
One thing that will change from the January meeting is the availability of 6-foot-6-inch forward Alex Wesby. Wesby, who is averaging 10.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, sat out that meeting with a wrist injury but is now back in the Owl starting lineup. His return gives Temple much needed depth on the perimeter. Chaney will now be able to bring sophomore Brian Polk and freshman Nile Murry off the bench, giving his team even fresher legs with which to runs its defense.
UMass also must once again shut down the Owls' primary offensive threat, point guard Lynn Greer. He is the second leading scorer in the A-10 behind only St. Bonaventure's J.R. Bremer at 23.9 points per contest but was shut down by Raheim Lamb and Shannon Crooks last month. In that game, Greer hit just 8-of-24 field goals including 3-of-11 from 3-point range. While he did managed to tally 23 points on that afternoon, he was often frustrated and forced up a number of ill-advised shots.
If Temple is going to win, it is going to need to rediscover its long-range stroke. The Owls lead the A-10 in 3-point shooting percentage at just above 41-percent but they made just 6-of-24 against the Minutemen. For the better part of the conference schedule, UMass has frustrated its opponents from behind the arc, holding them below 33 percent. This was evident on Wednesday night when the Minutemen held St. Bonaventure, the nation's top 3-point shooting team, to just 4-for-21 from long range.
Saturday's game will be won from behind the arc with each team relying on perimeter players for a bulk of their offense. The team that hits more threes and a higher percentage will likely come out on top.
In his first return to the City of Brotherly Love since signing on with the Minutemen last March, Lappas will face a couple of tough challenges. But they are challenges that must be met head on if the Minutemen want to have any chance at reaching the postseason. Desperate times call for desperate measures. But these are not desperate times for the Minutemen. They just have to win.