ever let it be said that a team stops jockeying for position simply because its NCAA and NIT hopes are thinner than tissue paper.
UMass (11-14, 5-9 Atlantic 10) is living that reality right now, its slim postseason hopes probably hanging on by somehow sliding into the NCAA field with a four-game run in next week's conference tournament.
``You're always better off if you only have to win three games,'' UMass coach Steve Lappas said yesterday. ``But this is the situation we're in right now.''
As such, the Minutemen, who will finish with their worst conference mark since the 1988-89 season, are now playing for a healthy seed in the first round of the A-10 tournament next Wednesday at The Spectrum.
A win over Rhode Island tonight would guarantee the Minutemen a No. 4 seed, and thus a first round game against either George Washington or Duquesne. Both are desirable opponents, though the Minutemen lost to the Dukes this season.
And though taking care of business at The Mullins Center tonight against the Rams (7-18, 3-11) should be considered a solid bet, it's not for this UMass team.
The Minutemen lost on the road to Rhode Island on Feb. 2 in the midst of a three-game losing streak that was one of their dreariest stretches of the season. They followed it with a 78-69 loss at Duquesne on Feb. 2.
Though the Minutemen have gone a rough 2-4 over their last six games, Lappas believes that the signs of improvement may actually be there.
The Minutemen dominated a big Fordham team on the backboards last Saturday - an important step for a team that has inexplicably had trouble rebounding this season.
But even if center Kitwana Rhymer is indeed starting to reassert himself on the tail end of a disappointing senior season, Lappas is not comfortable counting on his big guys to take care of the glass.
Not considering the way that the Minutemen have been outplayed in that department by a number of smaller teams this season.
``We'll see what happens,'' said Lappas. ``Rebounding was a big part of the way we played the first time against Rhode Island. We need all of our guys to rebound, because we don't have anyone who is averaging a lot by himself.''
Lappas was also encouraged by the Minutemen's ability to score during a 72-67 loss to St. Joseph's last week.
Toss in Saturday's 67-54 win over Fordham, which featured 44 percent shooting from 3-point range (10-for-23), and the Minutemen may have found a groove, however brief.
Sophomore Anthony Anderson has been particularly hot over the last three games, shooting 12-for-26 from 3-point range and averaging 13 points and 3.6 assists per game.
ll good things must come to an end.
On Wednesday evening in front of the Mullins Center faithful, the home careers of the four seniors on the Massachusetts men's basketball team will come to an end as the Minutemen take on the University of Rhode Island.
Tri-captains Kitwana Rhymer, Eric Williams and Shannon Crooks, as well as reserve forward Ronell Blizzard are closing in on the end of their UMass careers and will look to go out on a high by exacting some revenge on the Rams.
Back on Feb. 2, the Rams handed UMass (11-14, 5-9 Atlantic 10) a 70-59 defeat at the Keaney Gym in Kingston, R.I. That was just the second conference victory for URI (7-18, 3-11 A-10) and it has added just one more since then. However, the Minutemen have not been much better, slumping to just a 2-5 record since falling to the Rams. But one of those wins did come in the Maroon and White's last outing, a 67-54 triumph over Fordham in which Anthony Anderson led the way with 16 points while Rhymer added his fourth double-double of the season with 14 points and 11 rebounds.
That victory also put the Minutemen on the brink of securing the No. 4 seed in the A-10 East Division, meaning that they would take on either Duquense or George Washington in the first round of next week's A-10 Tournament in Philadelphia.
If the Minutemen are to notch their sixth conference victory and assure themselves of that No. 4 seed they will need a better performance from Crooks than the last time these two New England rivals tipped off. In that game Crooks shot a season worst 1-of-15 from the floor, including 1-of-7 from three-point range for just five points. On Wednesday night he will be looking to show everybody that that performance was an aberration and not the real Shannon Crooks.
In order to win the Minutemen must also control the defensive glass and limit second chance baskets for the Rams. In the first meeting URI pulled down 14 offensive rebounds, many of which came in the game's final three minutes when UMass was trying to make one final run. The Minutemen have struggled on the boards for most of the conference schedule but have begun to right the ship following the victory over Fordham. In that contest UMass outrebounded the Rams 45-36, much to the delight of head coach Steve Lappas.
"I was happy with the way we rebounded the ball and boxed out [against Fordham,]" Lappas said on Monday during the weekly A-10 coaches conference call. "It was a big factor in the game and it was a good win for us."
Another good win this evening on Senior Night will see the Minutemen win back-to-back games for the first time in over a month and give the club a bit of positive momentum before heading to Cincinnati for the final regular season game of the season on Saturday afternoon against Xavier.
The emotions are sure to be running high as the four senior Minutemen take their final bows at the Mullins Center. And they and the rest of the Minutemen will look to send the fans home happy by picking up a big win against the Rams.
MHERST - Revenge for the 70-59 loss Feb. 2 in Kingston is on the list of reasons for the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team to be motivated for tonight's 7:30 senior-day game against Rhode Island at the Mullins Center. But it's not on top of that list.
Priority No. 1 is seeding in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. A UMass win would wrap up fourth place in the league's East Division. No. 2 is giving the team's four seniors a win in their final home game.
"I've been stressing to them that these guys beat us, but I've been stressing more that we want to come in fourth," UMass coach Steve Lappas said. "Right now it's more important to help ourselves with the tournament."
As is tradition in the final home game, the Minutemen will start their four seniors Kitwana Rhymer, Eric Williams, Ronell Blizzard, Shannon Crooks along with sophomore Anthony Anderson.
"I want to make it special for them. I want those guys to go out winners," Lappas said. "It's a big night for them. I have a lot of respect for them. I want them to have a special night. They deserve to have a special night. They've been great. They've listened. They've tried to do the things we've said. They've worked at it, tried their best and did a good job."
Lappas said he hopes some of his younger players learned from the departing senior and singled out Crooks.
"Shannon's a warrior. He's a kid that goes out there, plays hard all the time and gives you everything he's got. He never struggles for lack of trying. He's always out there giving everything he's got," Lappas said. "I hope they learn from his grittiness and toughness and the way he approaches the game. Those are a lot of the qualities you want the guys to have."
Last time against Rhody, the Minutemen were shorthanded with Micah Brand sidelined with an ankle sprain and were further hindered when Crooks bumped his head in a collision with a cameraman early in the game. He stayed in the game, but was clearly not himself, shooting 1-for-15 and finished with just five points in the loss.
"He was out of it. When Shannon plays a game like that, 1-for-15, we're not going to have much of a chance," Lappas said.
Barring any ill-placed photographers, the Minutemen will have Crooks and Brand back at full-strength.
Troy Wiley and Dustin Hellenga led the Rams with 15 points each in that game.
"We didn't do a good job with either guy, Hellenga in the first half and Wiley the whole game," Lappas said. "We have a better idea how to play them and play their team."
Lappas thought having Brand would slow Wiley.
"He matches up pretty good with Wiley," Lappas said. Hopefully having Micah back will help."
NOTES: UMass needs just six 3-pointers to break the school record of 181 in a season set in 1994-95.
Barring a huge push by Anderson in scoring, assists or steals, Crooks will be the first player to lead UMass in all three categories since Donald Russell did in 1981-82.