MHERST - The University of Massachusetts men's basketball players aren't hiding how much they want another shot at Xavier, but Minuteman coach Steve Lappas isn't worried about his team overlooking George Washington when the teams meet at noon Wednesday in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
"If we overlook anybody, we have to be out of our minds," Lappas said. "If we don't play well and we lose, it's not going to be because we overlooked them. Let's take that excuse and throw it out the window. I don't know if we're going to play good or if we're going to win. But that's not going to be the reason why if we don't."
Still the players made it clear the Musketeers, who would be their second-round opponent if they win, aren't far from their minds.
"We know it's one game and you're out. We know we have to focus on GW," senior center Kitwana Rhymer said. "Xavier got us down there and we have revenge on the mind. I got some real revenge on the mind so I want to run through GW."
Senior Shannon Crooks said the noon game requires even more focus with no crowd to feed off of.
"It's going to be a little different environment, probably not a lot of people at the game," he said. "So we're going to have to be more focused."
Both the Minutemen and Colonials are trying to become the first team to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament without the first-round bye. Still despite the necessity to play four games in four days to do it, Lappas isn't going to limit anyone's minutes.
"We have to do what we have to do to win Wednesday. I'm not going to play 10 guys because we need to be fresh for four days, because if we don't win Wednesday there's no two days," Lappas said. "We're going to take it one game at a time. If we have to play six (players) to win I'll play six, I have to play eight I'll do it. It's all going to be about winning Wednesday.
"It's like the seventh game of the World Series," he continued. "They put the starters in the bullpen, they bring in guys for one out. We're going to do what ever we can to win that one game and not worry about tomorrow."
Sophomore Raheim Lamb's focus isn't in question. He's charged with trying to slow iGeorge Washington forward Chris Monroe, who is averaging 21.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.
"He's a slasher, not a shooter. I'm going to play off him trying to make him shoot the ball," Lamb said. "Last time we played them, he taught me a couple things. He's strong. He did a couple moves on me and I asked the ref, but they let it go, so I learned. I just have to be real prepared to D this guy."
The Colonials arrive in Philadelphia on a two-game winning streak that followed a 10-game losing streak.
"We're playing better," George Washington coach Karl Hobbs said. "Even when things were bad, out guys never lost their effort and enthusiasm."
UMass' 73-60 win over GW in Amherst on Jan. 23 was loss No. 3 in that streak. In that game Rhymer (14 points) and Micah Brand (17 points) had one of their best combined efforts of the season.
"I think they're going to really try and bottle up our inside game because our big guys really did play well in that game," Lappas said.
The Minutemen and Colonials are not unfamiliar with each other in the postseason. The teams have played each other in four of the last six A-10 Tournaments with each team winning twice.
eorge Washington's game against Massachusetts today in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Conference men's tournament could be senior forward Jaason Smith's last as a Colonial.
Smith, who became a starter for the first time this season, has endured coaching changes, injury and the death of a family member during his four years at GW. But even though nothing seemed to go his way, Smith did not become bitter.
"I've seen it all from the good to the bad to the ugly to the pretty," Smith said. "It was kind of like a basketball game. I never got my momentum going. I never got into the flow of the game."
Smith was recruited to George Washington by former coach Mike Jarvis, who left before Smith's freshman year to go to St. John's. As a freshman in 1998-99, he missed the last part of the season – and the Colonials' most recent NCAA tournament appearance – because of surgery to repair a lower abdominal hernia. He was not able to apply for a medical hardship because he had played in eight games – two more than the limit.
During his sophomore year, Smith left the team briefly in December 1999 to return to Boston for his father's funeral. Although he and his father were not close, Smith struggled when he rejoined the team. It wasn't until near the end of the season that he began to play well.
The nadir, however, came last year. George Washington endured its first losing season in 12 years. On- and off-court fights, NCAA violations (two players improperly used an assistant coach's telephone access code) and another player's arrest and conviction for sexual assault further tarnished the image of the program. Then coach Tom Penders resigned.
"When Coach Penders left, I was like, 'I've got to start all over again,' " Smith said.
But along came Karl Hobbs, a coach Smith identified with. "He's a Roxbury [Massachusetts] guy like myself," Smith said.
Smith took it upon himself to help Hobbs turn the program around. He called a players-only meeting before the season and announced this was his team. He wasn't putting up with attitudes or egos. This year, his senior year, was going to be different.
"No one would argue that Jaason is our leader," GW sophomore guard Greg Collucci said.
Few would have expected Smith to become such a leader when he arrived on campus four years ago. He was a gangly 19-year-old who didn't have a lot of self-confidence or a lot of direction in his life.
"He is what college is about to a lot of inner city kids," Hobbs said. "They come in one way, but they leave another way. . . . Now he's clean cut. He's well spoken. He's polished. He's sure of himself. You can't help but be so proud of the guy."
Smith has become a self-appointed ambassador for George Washington. He reaches out to recruits and visitors, making them feel welcome.
"I think I owe it to this university because they blessed me with a scholarship," said Smith, who will graduate with a criminal justice degree this spring. "Why not show my appreciation?"
Smith, who likely will attend graduate school next fall, has no regrets about his four years. He does, however, have one wish.
"If I was [athletic director] Jack Kvancz for a day," Smith said, "I would probably have found Coach Hobbs a little earlier."
HILADELPHIA - Let us welcome back the discrepancies of college basketball - the effects of human emotion - for another year of postseason uncertainty.
Because Massachusetts men's basketball coach Steve Lappas surely isn't going to. He won't have any of it.
"If we lose, it's because the other team just played better," said Lappas, whose Minutemen face George Washington today at noon in the first round of the Verizon Atlantic 10 Tournament at the First Union Spectrum. "We can't control all that other psychological stuff."
It's not as if UMass has a good reason to neglect any opponent at this stage in the season. This campaign's continuation feeds off victory, and expires without it.
"It's everything, it's the whole season," said Lappas, hoping to duplicate today his team's 73-60 defeat of the Colonials Jan. 23 at the Mullins Center. "If we don't play well and we lose, it's not because we overlooked it. Let's take that excuse and throw it out the window. I don't know if we're going to win, but that's not going to be the reason we lose."
The only concern for Lappas is the George Washington roster, headed by junior Chris Monroe's 21.2 points per game. Monroe, at 6-feet-3-inches, can score from anywhere and is good at exploiting opponents' weaknesses. Monroe scored a game-high 24 points in the teams' last match-up, despite stoppage efforts from Shannon Crooks and Raheim Lamb.
Running the show for the Colonials is freshman T.J. Thompson, who will enter his first-ever A-10 Tournament game opposite Anthony Anderson, UMass' first-year point guard and the A-10's Rookie of the Year as named last night at the conference's award ceremony.
"They're starting off even in that regard," said Lappas of the two All-Rookie Team selections. "Neither kid has ever played in the tournament, but I don't think that's going to be a factor. They're both good players. Now, I'm not saying they're both going to play good, but I don't think nerves will be a factor."
As they shouldn't be, counting the number of A-10 Rookie of the Week awards between them. Anderson took the honor four times this year and Thompson three times. Both do a decent job controlling their respective offenses and finding scoring lanes, while averaging just about 10 points per game.
It's not as even on the inside, however. Six-foot-eight-inch junior Jaason Smith is the only featured interior presence for George Washington while UMass brings the likes of Micah Brand, Kitwana Rhymer and Eric Williams.
"Smith being the only person in there plays to our advantage," said Brand, who scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds last time against the Colonials. "It makes it easier because he can't really play too much aggressive defense."
Sophomore guard Darnell Miller and freshman forward Tamal Forchion round out the starting lineup for George Washington, but are of lesser concern than Monroe, Thompson and Smith.
The key for UMass is Crooks, who is nearing his final minutes of college basketball. At 14.6 points per game, he is the Minutemen's leader and can't waver if he expects to bring his team into the upper levels of the Tournament bracket. If UMass is to make it to the second round and chance an upset against Xavier, Crooks is the one who must star.
"I believe in experience, and I believe poise is related to experience," Lappas said. "To win this tournament, there's no doubt in my mind you're going to have to win a game after being down four or five points with three minutes to go. That's where you really need the poise."