HILADELPHIA - The last hope of just about any struggling team is the conference tournament.
Little wonder, then, that this message has been pounded home by UMass coach Steve Lappas and his staff this weekend.
But with tonight's game (9:30, ESPN2) in St. Joseph's tiny gymnasium looming as one of the most difficult road games of the season for the Minutemen, who are 2-7 on the road, the search for a change continues to confound everyone concerned.
St. Joseph's (15-9, 9-3 Atlantic 10), has lost only once at home this season - Dec. 31 against Gonzaga.
``I think at times that we misconstrue the difference between being good and trying hard,'' Lappas said yesterday. ``And we're not like this now for a lack of trying.''
As such, all the Minutemen (10-13, 4-8) may have left to fall back on are their work habits.
Tonight's game will be a difficult place to start building momentum for that return trip to Philadelphia for the Atlantic 10 tournament March 6-9.
``Right now we're trying to get a little bit better and better for the tournament,'' Lappas said. ``Winning our conference tournament is obviously the only way we have left to get to the NCAA tournament.''
Or perhaps any other tournament, for that matter.
``We've been talking about it a lot - trying to guarantee one of the two spots, the NCAA tournament and the NIT,'' UMass center Kitwana Rhymer said. ``For this team, it's a matter of faith. We can't have those lapses we fall into. We can't have unsurety about playing with each other.''
Rhymer, who has struggled for most of the season, said that in terms of his own game, that key lies in continuing to be patient.
``What I have to do for myself is something I've already said - play as hard as I can, go after rebounds, try and hit the open man,'' he said.
Sophomore forward Raheim Lamb, too, has learned the importance of angling for that one last chance.
``Every team in the conference has a chance in the conference tournament,'' he said. ``We've been playing good, we just have to learn to keep our composure when things start to get a little tough. These next four games before the tournament are our chance to build some momentum.''
onight at 9:30, Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse.
TV/radio: ESPN2; WPEN-AM (950).
Records: Massachusetts, 10-13 overall, 4-8 Atlantic Ten Conference; St. Joseph's, 15-9, 9-3.
Coaches: Massachusetts, Steve Lappas (first season); St. Joseph's, Phil Martelli (seventh season, 122-87).
Key players: For Massachusetts, Shannon Crooks, G, 6-2, Sr. (14.4 ppg., 3.9 assists); Anthony Anderson, G, 5-11, Soph. (10.0 ppg., 3.5 assists); Micah Brand, C, 6-11, Jr. (9.3 ppg., 5.7 rpg.).
For St. Joseph's, Marvin O'Connor, G, 6-4, Sr. (18.3 ppg.); Jameer Nelson, G, 6-0, Soph. (13.7 ppg., 6.3 assists, 4.7 rpg.); Bill Phillips, F, 6-10, Sr. (11.2 ppg., 7.0 rpg.).
Massachusetts preview: The Minutemen made only 31 percent of their shots in Saturday's 64-47 loss at Temple, their fifth in the last six games. Scoring continues to be a problem for UMass, which is averaging 63.8 points a game, fourth lowest in the conference, and shooting 40.8 percent. Anderson, the A-10 rookie of the week four times this season, leads the team in three-point shooting. The Minutemen hope to avenge last month's 63-38 loss to St. Joseph's.
St. Joseph's update: The Hawks scored 48 points in the first half Saturday at Xavier before losing, 84-77, in an exciting game decided in the final seconds. Nelson, the conference co-player of the week, has averaged 21.8 points the last four games, shooting 13 for 23 (56.5 percent) from three-point distance. O'Connor continues to struggle from beyond the arc, shooting 28.8 percent (49 for 170). The Hawks are trying to protect a one-game lead over Temple in the East with four games to play.
HILADELPHIA - Don't tell Phil Martelli about disappointments. While he acknowledged that his Saint Joseph's Hawks haven't exactly played like the top-10 team they were predicted to be in preseason, their goals are still in sight with a 15-9 overall record including 9-3 in the Atlantic 10.
"We won nine games in the last minute last year," Martelli said. "We've lost five games in the last minutes this year and we haven't won any. Switch those around and people are asking what seed you're going to get.
"We're a good team that's 15-9. But what have they taken from us that we want, that we still can't have? We can still go to the NCAA Tournament. We can still win the Atlantic 10. No one has said that we can't do those things. Let's get ourselves right so that on March 6, we're playing our best basketball."
His team's next step toward achieving those goals is tonight at 9:30 when the University of Massachusetts travels to Hawk Hill.
In a season that has featured quite a few offensive clunkers from the Minutemen, their Jan. 5 63-38 loss to Saint Joseph's set the standard against which years worth of future clunkers will be measured.
When preparing for tonight's game against those same Hawks, UMass coach Steve Lappas didn't even bother showing his team the tape of that game.
"We got something from it as a coaching staff. But we didn't show it to them," Lappas said. "There's no reason to raise their frustration level. "
Saint Joseph's is "not going to get much from the videotape either," Lappas continued. "They did do some things. They switched all of our screens. They did some things that technically hurt us that they'll probably do again."
Martelli is putting the videotape to a little more use, but the focus of his preparation has changed. The first game he set his defense to stop Kitwana Rhymer and Micah Brand, and now he's shifted his focus to Anthony Anderson and Shannon Crooks.
"Last time we were overly concerned about controlling the lane, because Rhymer, Brand and Eric Williams bring size and bulk that we don't have and the ball has always been thrown into the low post when you play UMass," Martelli said. "Our No. 1 key this time is to contain Crooks and Anderson. So it has changed dramatically in how we see the defensive game plan working.
"It adds to the anxiety for me," Martelli continued. "What happens if Rhymer has a game like he had at St. Bonaventure. What happens if all the talents that I think Brand has currently explodes. Then you have leaks all over the court and you can't plug all of them. But you have to attack the known as best you can.
"Anderson had no threes against us last time and he's had 51 in the last 10 games. They're starting to look more like a Steve Lappas offensive team. We have to take some things out of" the last game, Martelli continued. "The way they guarded us probably isn't going to change. Their defense wasn't an issue in the last game. But that's 11 games ago, almost six weeks ago."
The Hawks won their first seven A-10 games, but they've dropped three of their last five, including their last two to Richmond and Xavier.