assachusetts men's basketball coach Steve Lappas may not be a gambling man but he will be looking for a little luck on Saturday afternoon at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. to change his team's recent fortunes.
The Minutemen go into tomorrow's encounter with Central Connecticut State at the Mohegan Sun Arena in the midst of a three-game losing streak. The Blue Devils however, come in on a three-game winning streak and stand at 7-2 overall.
In order to knock off the Blue Devils, UMass (4-3) will need to redouble its efforts on the defensive end of the floor. In their first four games, all wins, the Minutemen held their opponents to under 37 percent shooting from the floor. However, in each of its three losses, UMass has allowed teams to shoot above the 37 percent mark including on Tuesday night, when UConn hit almost 48 percent of its field goals and 57 percent of its threes en route to a 69-59 victory at the Mullins Center.
The primary focus of the Minuteman defense will have to be CCSU senior center Corsley Edwards. Edwards has notched four double-doubles this season and leads the Blue Devils in both scoring (19.3 points per game) and rebounding (10.3 per contest). He will be matched up with senior Kitwana Rhymer; UMass' leader in rebounds and blocked shots. Despite scoring 12 points against the Huskies, Rhymer struggled at the offensive end, making just 5-of-14 field goals and having four shots blocked in the first half.
If Rhymer is able to contain Edwards, something no opposing big man has been able to do so far in 2001-02, the Blue Devils will need to look to their backcourt duo of Ricardo Scott and Damian Battles. The pair are averaging more than 25 points per game and hitting better than 35 percent of their long range attempts.
Those numbers are almost identical to those of their backcourt counterparts, Anthony Anderson and Shannon Crooks of the Minutemen. Crooks is having his best season to date in Amherst after sliding over to the two-guard, averaging a team-high 15.3 points and 4.1 assists. His backcourt-mate Anderson has twice been named Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week for the way that he has efficiently run the UMass offense.
At the other end of the floor UMass will need to get on the board early and often, thus not falling behind in the game's opening minutes. It took UConn just six and a half minutes to open up a double-digit lead on Tuesday night and it took Boston College even less time to do so four days earlier. In both cases the Minutemen could not recover, went into halftime down big and proceeded to lose.
Another key will be the reemergence of sophomore small forward Willie Jenkins. After winning the starting small forward job at the beginning of the season, Jenkins averaged almost eight points in 20 minutes over UMass' first four games. However, Jenkins has failed to score in each of the three losses, seen his playing time drastically reduced and lost his starting spot to Raheim Lamb.
With eight days off between this game and their next on Dec. 23 against Maine, the Minutemen will be looking to get back to their winning ways, put this recent slide behind them and pick up some positive momentum as they head toward the start of the A-10 schedule.
MHERST - Eleven days ago, the University of Massachusetts men's basketball players admitted they didn't take Holy Cross seriously enough and it cost them.
The Minutemen lost to the Crusaders, 67-56, and pledged to recognize their underestimation and not to let it happen again.
UMass hasn't won since, with subsequent losses to Boston College and Connecticut, but both of those schools have national names.
Whether or not the Minutemen truly learned from the Holy Cross game will be on display Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn., where UMass takes on Central Connecticut State.
The game is the first college game ever at Mohegan Sun Arena, a 9,000-seat venue that has hosted everything from Ultimate Fighting to Anne Murray. It's best known for hosting a Washington Wizards preseason game this year that served as an appetizer to Michael Jordan's marathon gambling excursion.
Like Holy Cross, CCSU's tradition doesn't afford them instant respect from their opponents, but while the Blue Devils aren't Duke, they aren't High Point or Morris Brown instant-win caliber, either.
"I have to think that our guys right now should be of the mindset that we could be playing anybody and we have to be ready to play," UMass coach Steve Lappas said.
"We've lost three in a row and no matter how you look at it, we have to play hard and put some wins together," said junior big man Micah Brand.
The Blue Devils check in at 7-2, with their two defeats coming at the hands of Oklahoma and Northeast Conference leader St. Francis (N.Y.).
Central Connecticut has won a pair of tournaments, the Phoenix Classic in Hartford, and the Mohegan Sun Classic (played at Central), which took a win over a well-regarded Brown team to achieve.
What Central Connecticut has that most mid-majors are missing is a legitimate inside presence. Senior center Corsley Edwards is a bull in the paint at 6-foot-9, 280 pounds. Scoring inside as well as with an effective jumper out to 15 feet, Edwards is averaging 19.6 points to go along with his 10.7 rebounds, which puts him among the nation's leaders on the boards.
"We've really asked Corsley to carry us on his shoulders. Those are 280-pound shoulders," said Central Connecticut coach Howie Dickenman. "He's in the best condition of his career. He's really put a lot of time in the weight room to be in this condition."
"They have a great big man," Lappas said. "He poses some problems. We're going to try not to let him catch the ball wherever he wants."
Against the Minuteman frontline of Kitwana Rhymer and Brand, Dickenman said Corsley can make a name for himself.
"This is an opportunity for him to show some things," he said. "But I am worried about foul trouble. I don't want him to try to do too much too fast. He hasn't really been in foul trouble this year, but that's always a concern."
Lappas said he expected the Blue Devils to employ a lot of 2-3 zone defense to help protect Edwards from foul trouble.
Rhymer is looking forward to the matchup.
"The weight is on my shoulders right now," Rhymer said. "I got it. I'm willing to take the weight. I definitely like a game like that. It's a challenge."
Any hope of Anthony Anderson surprising opponents anymore appears to be gone. When Dickenman was asked who concerned him for the Minutemen, Anderson was the first player he mentioned.
"Anthony Anderson is a terrific player and I think he's going to be one heckuva player before it's all over," Dickenman said. "He and Shannon Crooks are both shooting well and doing a great job getting to spots on the floor where we don't want them to get. We have to always identify where they are on the floor.
"Plus UMass has two horses in Rhymer and Brand; boy oh boy," Dickenman added. "So we have to be concerned with them as well. If their guards can penetrate, they can dish the ball to their big guys inside as well."
NOTES: Lappas said that sophomore swingman Jameel Pugh will see action again off the bench behind starter Raheim Lamb.
"I want to find out who he is out there," Lappas said. "I feel like I owe it to ourselves to find out."
Game tickets ($15 general public, $5 students) are still available.