Coverage from:
The Boston Herald
The Massachusetts Daily Collegian
The Hartford Courant
The Hartford Courant - U-Game focus
The Hartford Courant - Lappas focus
The Daily Hampshire Gazette
The Daily Hampshire Gazette - Cox focus
The Springfield Union-News External link
The Springfield Union-News - Cox focus External link

Minutemen impress Calhoun
By Mark Murphy, The Boston Herald Staff Writer, 12/11/2001

If it has anything to do with college basketball, then chances are good that Jim Calhoun had the honor or horror of going through the experience.

And when the UConn coach looks at UMass, his opponent tonight at the Mullins Center, Calhoun can naturally pull a relevant moment out of his life and apply it to Steve Lappas' team.

``They reflect some of the teams in our league,'' he said yesterday of the 4-2 Minutemen, who have dropped their last two games to Boston College and Holy Cross after a rousing 4-0 start. ``When I came down from Northeastern, we were able to play a very tough ball-control game. A lot of it had to do with the fact that my predecessor (Dom Perno) had done a good job teaching them to play tough defense, and so that, combined with what we taught them, really worked.

``I'm sure it's the same with that team now,'' Calhoun said of UMass. ``Bruiser (Flint) had them playing tough defense, and Steve has come in with an offensive system that has allowed them more freedom than Bruiser or even John (Calipari) would have allowed.''

The result, as Calhoun sees it, is a UMass team that was able to shave a 26-point BC lead down to two points Saturday.

Though the Minutemen are clearly a work in progress compared to the 4-1 Huskies, they are not far removed from a team like UConn.

Calhoun's team is young, with sophomore star Caron Butler the offensive force. Freshman Ben Gordon is the Huskies' second-leading scorer, and freshman center Emeka Okator is exerting himself as a major defensive force inside.

UMass hasn't defeated the Huskies since 1983, but Calhoun believes the Minutemen may be closer than ever to catching UConn.

``I've seen a lot of the Atlantic 10 teams this year, and I think that they really have a chance,'' he said. ``Their comeback against BC was really something, and that's hard to do on the road.''

And the Minutemen's stage will be the largest in quite some time. The 9 p.m. game is one of three UMass has scheduled on ESPN this season, with a Jan. 19 home game against Temple and a season-ending March 2 date at Xavier the other two national cablecasts. A Jan. 19 game at Saint Joseph's has been slated for ESPN2.

But making the most of these dates is an issue Lappas was still attempting to address yesterday.

``It takes a little time, and the way the schedule is, we don't have a lot of easy games in December,'' said Lappas, whose team has nonetheless come on remarkably well during that stretch, with the exception of a disappointing loss to Holy Cross last week.

``We have so many young guys,'' he said of Saturday's attempt to corral BC. ``Shannon Crooks was our only experienced player on the perimeter, and we were out there playing against one of the best perimeter teams in the country. You can't use that game for evaluation when you're looking ahead.''

Border War
By Eric Soderstrom, The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, 12/11/2001

This isn't anything new for Steve Lappas.

"I've been in a couple of [rivalry games]," the UMass skipper said last night after his weekly radio show on WHMP. "At Manhattan it was Manhattan-Fordham. At Villanova it was Villanova-St. Joe's. In both cases a lot of the families had kids go to both schools. So there were a lot of families where some kids would go to Manhattan, some would go to Fordham. Some would go to St. Joe's, some would go to Villanova. And I guess there's a lot of families that had kids go to UMass and kids go to UConn.

"So, it's that kind of rivalry."

Coming off its 80-78 heartbreaker at No. 13 Boston College, the Massachusetts men's basketball team hosts Connecticut in the sixth annual MassMutual "U" Game tonight at 9 p.m. at the Mullins Center in what looks to be UMass' first sellout since Feb. 17 versus Temple last season. As of last night, only 900 tickets remained to be sold.

UConn has won the last 10 meetings between these two schools and comes in 4-1, just off an 80-44 blowout of Northeastern Saturday. The Huskies' only loss came last Monday at the MCI Center (Washington, D.C.) in a 77-65 letdown to Maryland in the final of the BB&T Classic.

The Minutemen stand at 4-2 after the loss to BC Saturday and their 67-56 disappointment to Holy Cross last Tuesday. But they're ready to get things going again against their biggest rival.

"We're at home and we just lost two in a row, so we need this one bad - it's like a must win to keep us going," said Anthony Anderson who scored a team-high 19 points against the Eagles to boost his average to 9.7 points a game. "It's going to be a big game, it's going to be packed. And we'll be ready to go."

The hitch for UMass in its last two games has been its failure to put together two halves of solid play.

Saturday at Conte Forum the Maroon and White limped into the locker room down 44-21 to BC after shooting a miserable 25 percent (8-for-32) from the floor while hitting only one of its 3-point attempts. But in the second half the Minutemen turned things around, shooting 59.5 percent (22-for-37) from the field while draining 6-of-11 from behind the arc.

Against Holy Cross, UMass led 36-32 at halftime but flopped in the second stanza as the Crusaders outscored the Minutemen 35-20 to pull out the upset.

"Everybody just has to come and play hard," said Anderson, who is averaging 33 minutes a game at the point. "At times when we're not hitting shots, we'll come down and slack on defense. That can't happen. Regardless if the shots are falling or not we have to stay focused and execute."

UConn floors maybe the most athletic team the Minutemen will see all season. The Huskies are like Oregon - who UMass beat 62-58 on Nov. 27 - as far as their dependence in the transition game, but overall they are more athletic and take it stronger and more often to the cylinder.

"They're not quite the 3-point shooters," said Lappas, who is 6-10 all time versus Jim Calhoun's squad. "But they run even faster and they crash the boards even better."

Lappas mentioned that stopping 6-foot-7-inch sophomore Caron Butler will be key to his team's success. On the year, Butler is leading UConn with 17.6 points a game and is pulling down 5.8 boards.

Joining Butler on the blocks is 6-foot-9-inch freshman center Emeka Okafor and the 6-foot-7-inch senior Johnnie Selvie. In last year's "U"-Game, Butler and Selvie both netted 14 for the Huskies to lead them to the 82-67 triumph at the Hartford Civic Center, a loss that dropped the Minutemen to 1-6 on the season, as UConn went to 8-1.

The Huskie backcourt is led by junior Tony Robertson who is averaging 13.2 points a game and sophomore native Taliek Brown (6.0 ppg) who will battle with Anderson in the backcourt, for what could be seen as a long-awaited duel.

"I was at Adidas Camp the same year [Taliek] was, but we didn't get a chance to play each other," said Anderson, who will also see one of his old teammates for the first time in a couple years.

"I'm finally get to play against someone that I know," said Anderson about UConn's Scott Hazelton, who played with him on the Mass. Wildcats in the AAU program. "It's going to be fun. I haven't seen or talked to him since our last AAU tournament."

UConn Expects It To Be Rough
UMass Likes Physical Game
By Matt Eagan, The Hartford Courant Staff Writer, 12/11/2001

STORRS -- All the Huskies started out on the court Monday at Gampel Pavilion, but one by one they began to disappear.

Caron Butler limped away with a bruised right thigh. Taliek Brown walked off with a sore little finger on his left hand. Johnnie Selvie exited with an upset stomach. Even Ace Watanasuparp was missing.

A Look From Leitao

UConn associate head coach Dave Leitao takes a look at some the areas the Huskies will focus on in tonight's game at UMass.

1. Adjust to changing defenses: UMass is good at showing different types of defenses. We need to recognize man, zone and double-teams quickly and take advantage.

2. Run: Until the second half of the BC game, UMass hadn't produced a lot of points so we have to get out, break and run. Try to put a lot of points on the board through our up-tempo style.

3. Defend inside and out: They have three big guys there in Kitwana Rhymer, Micah Brand and Eric Williams. We have to be cognizant of that, but this year they are a little more well-rounded. Making defensive stops in this game will be critical for both teams.

These low-budget gore flick plot twists were not what UConn needed the day before UMass. The Minutemen are much improved, spoiling for a victory in this series and unlikely to bring much finesse to the task.

"They want to beat us bad," Tony Robertson said. "It's always been a great rivalry, and you have to expect the physical play and all that banging down low to continue."

All three of the injured Huskies are expected to play.

"Taliek injured his finger, so we sent him out. I'm sure he'll be fine," coach Jim Calhoun said. "Caron's leg continues to bother him, and he really has a tough time pushing it. He got a little looser today, and we'll try to get him loose enough for tomorrow night."

As for Selvie, new pain medication has upset his intestinal balance. He also is working through a sore right hand and left elbow.

Butler's was the most serious injury. He took a knee to the right thigh Saturday at the start of the second half against Northeastern. He played another nine minutes, but the muscle began to tighten after he left the game.

"I'm going to play," Butler said. "Even if it does hurt."

Butler, who said he was fine after the game Saturday, was unable to practice Sunday and left Monday after the thigh tightened during a break.

"Caron went farther than I thought he would," Calhoun said. "I'm sure he'll try to play, but right now it's limited him a little bit."

This is not a time for the Huskies to be limited. The UGame is a much more even match than it has been in recent years, especially at the Mullins Center, where the Huskies will face a hostile crowd and any demons left from their 1-8 road showing last season.

"This is where we find out what kind of team we are," Calhoun said. "We found some things out against Maryland. I'm not sure the game at home against Northeastern proved anything, but we were much more consistent. I really want to see where we are at this point, and I think at UMass will give us that opportunity."

UMass (4-2) has demonstrated an ability to beat good teams. The Minutemen beat Oregon and North Carolina State, and rallied from a 23-point second-half deficit before losing by two at Boston College.

Even with new coach Steve Lappas, the Minutemen pound the ball inside and play bruising defense, but Shannon Crooks (45.2 percent from three) has given them an alternative to inside scoring and Anthony Anderson has handled the point well.

Still, the game probably will be decided inside, where UMass is big and deep.

"We have to rebound the ball," Lappas said. "They're a tremendous offensive rebounding team, and they're a tremendous team in transition. We've got to rebound the ball."

UMass has the people to rebound.

Micah Brand (6 feet 11) and Kitwana Rhymer (6-10) are bigger than anyone UConn has, except Justin Brown (7-0), who could play a key role if the game is played at a leisurely pace. The Huskies also will rely on Selvie (6-7) and Emeka Okafor (6-9) to control the boards, which means the game could hinge on speed against power inside.

"I'm quicker than those big guys," Selvie said. "I have to beat them on offense and try to get around them quicker on defense. That's my advantage. But they've got an advantage, too, because they can shoot over me. You've got to look forward to that matchup tomorrow."

Without Competition, No Rivalry
By Desmond Conner, The Hartford Courant, 12/11/2001

UConn athletic director Lew Perkins and UMass AD Bob Marcum have yet to sit down to discuss the future of the schools' series in men's basketball.

What happens tonight should help them determine if the series has a life after the contract ends after the 2003-04 season. With the exception of the year the rivalry resumed, 1996, and a five-point UConn victory in Amherst in 1998, this series hasn't shown any signs of life. The Huskies (4-1) play an improving UMass team (4-2) at the Mullins Center tonight on ESPN.

Perkins and Marcum, close, longtime friends, said they want the series to continue past the 2003-04 season - with a slight adjustment - no matter what.

But if the Huskies win tonight, they should think about scrapping the idea of renewing a deal until UMass can be consistently competitive with UConn.

Right now, the programs are not in the same class.

If UConn wins tonight, it would be six straight Huskies victories since the "rivalry" resumed. That's UConn 6, UMass 0.

Even if the Huskies lose tonight, it would take a lot to show that the series should go on because the next two games are in Connecticut - at Gampel Pavilion, then at the Civic Center.

The Huskies don't lose often at either place.

Back in the mid-'90s, Perkins and Marcum were responding to the cries of fans and media to renew the rivalry. Both programs were reaching new heights. There was the Jim Calhoun and Ray Allen vs. John Calipari and Marcus Camby matchup everybody wanted to see. But Calipari, Allen and Camby were gone to the NBA by the time the deal got done.

Still, without them, the '96 game was an exciting one. UConn won, 64-61. The game happened to be on ESPN Classic Saturday night. And the looks on Perkins' and Marcum's faces - sitting on either side of the scorers table - was like, "yeah, this is how it's supposed to be."

More than 14,000 turned out at the 16,000-plus seat "neutral site" Civic Center, with the gate being split down the middle. But the next year, about 10,000 showed at the Civic Center. UMass was struggling, and UConn won by 17.

The programs have a history that dates to the early 1900s. So in that sense, it is a rivalry. But UConn has owned the Minutemen's muskets all the way.

Through 103 meetings, the Huskies have won 65. And since the schools renewed the series in '96, the Huskies have won three of the five games by double-digit margins.

For it to be a real rivalry, it should be competitive, and it hasn't been because, in Marcum's words, "We haven't held up our end of the bargain."

"Does it have a life?" Perkins asked. "I think if things stay the way we're doing it right now, it does have a life. I think we have to continue to have a major sponsor. Mass Mutual has been great. We'd want to continue with them, but I don't think we can split the house."

They would have to change it to a home-and-home series. By the time the contract ends, four games will have been played at the Civic Center, and two on each campus.

But the Civic Center doesn't make sense anymore. And that's because UMass has struggled to sell its share of tickets there, which is costly for its program.

Costly for UConn, too. Last year, 9,123 showed up, the smallest crowd to see a UConn men's game at the Civic Center since 1987.

Again, that's a product of the product the Minutemen have put on the floor.

For UConn, instead of playing that game at the Civic Center, it could use the date to bring in perhaps a high-profile, nonconference opponent for a game the fans want to see and at the same time get the money from its usual sellout crowd of 16,294.

After all, basketball is a business, too.

First-year UMass coach Steve Lappas, who comes to Amherst from Villanova, is expected to help the program do an about-face after enduring some tough times. The Minutemen gave Boston College a scare over the weekend.

But until the program can consistently compete with UConn, this is a rivalry that should go away. It would be best for both sides and all who have watched it fizzle since 1996.

Lappas Takes Roots To UMass
Coach, Team Bond During Trip To Greece
By Ken Davis, The Hartford Courant Staff Writer, 12/11/2001

When Steve Lappas was introduced as the 19th head coach in UMass history, the furthest thing from his mind was taking the Minutemen on a 10-day basketball trip to Greece in August. It was March 26 when Lappas walked away from nine years at Villanova and showed up at a press conference in Amherst.

Lappas was thinking about moving his family, relocating in a new conference, meeting his new players, recruiting at a new school and all the other things that go with changing coaching jobs.

But when UMass athletic director Bob Marcum overheard Lappas talking about the trip he had been planning for over a year at Villanova, he suggested the Minutemen go instead.

Flash ahead to December and Lappas will tell you that trip overseas has played a big part in a 4-2 start by the Minutemen. By traveling together, practicing together and playing four games in Athens, Kavouri and Mykonos, a new coach and his players were able to bond. It has made everyone's transition much easier.

UMass opened the season with four victories before narrow losses to Holy Cross and Boston College. As a result, the Minutemen head into tonight's UGame against UConn as confident and comfortable as Lappas could ever have hoped.

"We benefited so much more as a group, from being together and going through that trip," Lappas said. "The basketball was fine. We practiced for 10 days before we left, but it was really that [trip] that helped us more than anything else.

"I'll tell you at the end of the year just how much it helped us."

Lappas never could have imagined how much his ancestry would help him start a new family - a basketball family at UMass.

Lappas is the son of a Greek immigrant. Thomas Lappas left his home and his family when he was 15 and settled in the United States in 1929.

"He lived in a small village called Perista," Lappas said. "He left his family there to come here and work and try to find a better way. There were uncles and cousins here but no immediate family. He came here to go to school, but before long he stopped going to school and was working as a florist He came to New York, through Ellis Island, and the people from his village who came along all gravitated to the florist business.

"We lived in Washington Heights and his store was in Jamaica, Queens. He would take the subway an hour in the morning and an hour at night. He would leave at 5 in the morning and come back at 8 every night. He worked seven days a week.

"When I think back, I can't imagine how somebody could do that. [Coaches] are doing what we love. He didn't love flowers. That's just how he made a living. He used to bring my brothers and me to the flower shop to work. And he would make it so hard on us that we would hate it. He didn't want any of us to get into that business."

Thomas Lappas didn't want his sons to be florists, but the way Steve would eventually make a living caught the immigrant father by surprise.

"Our family revolved around the Greek church," Lappas said. "That's where I started coaching. I started coaching my brother and his friends - in our Greek church.

"He always wanted me to be a teacher or a principal or something like that. When I was 21 and just getting ready to get out of college, I told him I wanted to coach basketball. And he looked at me and said, `You're going to make a living with a ball?' He just couldn't understand it.

"He ended up becoming unbelievably attached to basketball. He came to every game when I was a coach. He carried articles about me in his pocket to show people. When I was at Manhattan College, they didn't live too far away. He would take the bus up every day and watch practice after he retired.

"I think his proudest moment was when we won the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden [in 1995]. We all went back to the hotel to watch the [NCAA Tournament] selection show."

Thomas Lappas fought for America in World War II.

"When he got his token in the mail to report to the draft board, he couldn't even read the letter," Lappas said. "He didn't know what the heck they were talking about. ... He met my mother, Louella, who was from Bridgeport, in New York. In Tom Brokaw's book, The Greatest Generation, there's a letter that my mother wrote to my father when he was in the Army."

Last summer was the first time Steve had been to Greece since he was 18, when he returned to Perista with his father.

"We stayed in his village in the mountains, where there were about 50 people," Lappas said "We were there for 10 days and I hated it."

Thomas Lappas died in 1998, while Steve was in Alaska with his Villanova team, playing in the Top of the World Classic. Thomas was 83. Steve misses him every day, but has never forgotten the Greek traditions he was taught as a boy.

"It was funny [when we got to Greece] because we weren't very familiar with the coaches and to see Coach Lap up there dancing [Greek dances] was cool," senior guard Shannon Crooks said. "Coach [Andrew] Theokas got up and did some dances and then a couple of players got up. Everybody was really together on making this thing work and becoming comfortable with us. It gave us a chance to get to know the coaching staff, off the court. It made us closer and I think it has carried over to now."

Lappas hopes that feeling of togetherness carries UMass all the way to the NCAA Tournament. That's the goal. That's why he was hired. And if the Minutemen make it, Steve will say a special thanks to his father, because he remains the source of toughness that has helped Steve through some difficult times.

"I married a Greek girl, too," Lappas said. "But our kids don't have the same feeling for where we come from. When you're raised by a Greek immigrant, you spend your whole formative years ... you love him, but you respect him more.

"Then, as you get older and understand what he's about, you really love him and respect him. He was a tough guy."

UConn comes to Mullins Center
By Matt Vautour, The Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff Writer, 12/11/2001

AMHERST - It was one of Steve Lappas' favorite lines at the luncheon circuit shortly after he was hired.

"I figured out that the best way to get applause here is to tell people that we beat UConn twice last year when I was at Villanova," the new University of Massachusetts coach said on several occasions.

The line got its desired result. Laughter and clapping from the various groups that heard it. But with this year's UGame against Connecticut set for tonight at 9 p.m., Lappas made it clear that line was aimed for laughs, not the Husky bulletin board.

"I never touted anything," Lappas said. "I have a losing record against them. I just joked about it. All I said was a sure way to get applause was to tell people in a joking manner. I'll reiterate, it was in a joking manner that we won twice last year. But it was strictly in jest."

There will be very little joking, but the potential for quite a bit of applause tonight if Lappas can lead his team to the upset victory.

The sixth annual U Game visits the Mullins Center for the second time. UMass has yet to win since the rivalry was re-established for the 1996-97 season. The Minutemen narrowly lost to the Huskies the last time the game was in Amherst, 59-54. The last two games have been blowouts, 79-65 and 82-67.

UConn enters the contest with a 4-1 record, with wins over Vanderbilt, New Hampshire, George Washington and Northeastern and its only loss coming against No. 3 Maryland.

Lappas will go with his fourth different starting lineup this season, inserting sophomore Raheim Lamb, who had 12 points and seven rebounds in the Minutemen's 80-78 loss to Boston College on Saturday. He replaces Willie Jenkins, who has struggled of late.

Lamb draws a difficult assignment in his first career start as he'll guard Caron Butler whenever UMass plays man-to-man defense. Butler averaged 15.3 points and 7.6 rebounds a year ago as a freshman. He's at 17.6 points and 5.8 boards per game this year.

Lappas expected Lamb to be ready for the challenge.

"It's a good size matchup," Lappas said. "Raheim is big enough. Butler is very strong. It'll be interesting."

Lamb was excited about starting as well as guarding Butler.

"I'm up for it. I think I've been working hard. So I'm up for the challenge definitely," said Lamb, who has watched Butler on TV. "He likes to shoot off the dribble and rebound. I have to keep him off the glass."

Lappas had two specific concerns about UConn.

"They usually are a very good offensive rebounding team. They crash the boards very hard and they're usually very good in transition. Those are two things you can say about his teams since (coach Jim Calhoun) has been there."

UConn's top rebounders are feshman center Emeka Okafor (8.0 rpg.) and senior forward Johnnie Selvie (7.0).

"Our frontcourt has more responsibility. BC is a very good offensive rebounding team, but more because of their quickness getting to balls. This is more power involved," Lappas said. "They have big strong guys that our big strong guys have to keep out."

On the perimeter for UConn, Taliek Brown begins his second year at the point. He's averaging 4.8 assists per game to lead the team. His backcourt mate, Tony Robertson, is averaging 13.2 points per game.

UConn's most consistent backcourt scorer is freshman Ben Gordon, who is averaging 14.2 points per game off the bench.

Notes: As of last night there were still 900 tickets available for the game. ... UMass senior Shannon Crooks turns 23 today.

Cox knows both sides of rivalry
By Matt Vautour, The Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff Writer, 12/11/2001

AMHERST - Players sitting out a season due to NCAA transfer rules don't usually draw an abundance of media attention. They practice, sit on the bench in street clothes and prepare for next season.

But Marcus Cox, a 6-foot-4 guard from Bridgeport, Conn., was a media darling Monday. Sitting out after transferring to the University of Massachusetts from Connecticut, Cox was a logical expert on tonight's 9 p.m. matchup between the two teams. He fielded questions from newspapers in both states about the game.

"I think the teams are very evenly matched up," he said. "UMass has a lot of talent. They have a lot of confidence, especially after the second half at BC."

UMass coach Steve Lappas said the Minutemen have tried to get some advance scouting from the former Husky.

"We were messing with him yesterday," Lappas said. "He only had a couple of things for us, a couple of calls. He didn't have too much for us."

Cox said he's broke down matchups for some of his new teammates.

"Raheim has to guard Caron Butler and I told him about how he plays, things like that," Cox said. "It's helped them out a little."

Cox had seven points in last year's matchup between the two teams. He played in 23 games overall and started four, but averaged just 2.7 points in 11 minutes per game. He decided to leave in hopes of finding a place he could contribute more.

"UConn couldn't give me the minutes that I wanted," Cox said. "Coach (Jim Calhoun) thought maybe I needed to be on a team where I could be more mainly looked at. Here I have the potential to be that person."

Lappas has been pleased with Cox in practice.

"I think its going well. He's working hard trying to learn the way we play," Lappas said. "We wanted him bad at Villanova, so I'm glad we have him now."

Despite still talking to some of his former teammates, Cox said his loyalties are firm.

"I'm here. This is where I want to be," he said. "I don't think its going to be too sentimental."

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