PHILADELPHIA - Small children cross off each day on the calendar, excitedly counting down to Christmas. The University of Massachusetts men's basketball team is trying to avoid a similar but far less stimulating practice.
The Minutemen are trying to avoid crossing off each loss on the schedule, knowing it brings them one step closer to the day the NCAA tournament committee will decide, for the first time since 1991, to fill its 64-team field without them. But yesterday's 65-57 loss to Temple sent harsh reminders that even though it's January, time is already running out.
"A loss is a loss," UMass guard Monty Mack said after doing his best to avoid one with 27 points at the Apollo. "It's an empty feeling. I think we played hard and aggressively, but they made shots and we turned the ball over."
"We're going in the right direction, though," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said of his 8-9 team. "We're getting better."
That's true. UMass had won three straight before yesterday and played pretty well in defeat, which raises a nagging question that may be moot, but also unavoidable. Why couldn't the Minutemen have played this well against Davidson and Iona, St. Bonaventure and Marshall and Charleston, teams they'd have presumably beaten with the intensity and execution they displayed yesterday?
That's hard to say. But it was clear that UMass was not just playing against Temple but also the calendar, the schedule and its own recent history of making the NCAA tournament seven years in a row. The slow start jeopardizes its chances of achieving a goal many fans perceive, quite incorrectly, as a birthright.
"That's been the case for awhile, though," Flint said of his team's residency behind the 8-ball. "We've just got to win games, and the other things take care of themselves."
They need not merely just to win games, but win almost all of them. They are the Wallendas of basketball, living dangerously after sluggish starts leave no room for error.
If you know the history of the Wallendas, you know there's some risk in that. Still, it can be done. UMass was 8-9 in 1997, yet made the NCAA field.
But those early losses didn't look as bad as this season's, and unless UMass wins the Atlantic 10 tournament and lands the automatic berth, it's fair to guess the Minutemen will need to at least reach the A-10 final and take no worse than a 19-12 record to the selection committee.
That means they can lose two more regular-season games, as well as the A-10 final. With Xavier and Temple at home, George Washington, Dayton and Texas on the road and Rhode Island twice, pulling it off would be Flint's best Houdini act yet.
The players speak bravely, knowing the clock is ticking and the executioner awaits.
"This loss was a tough one," said point guard Charlton Clarke, who played in the Final Four as a freshman and would rather not play in the NIT - or nowhere - as a senior. "We didn't quit, we left it all on the floor. We've just got to sharpen our game up a bit."
And pronto. The situation is worsened in that the Atlantic 10, which has been earning five NCAA spots lately, may get as few as three after mediocre non-conference results.
Missing the NCAA tournament would not be the end of the world, though it would certainly take the debate of why UMass can't win a first-round game to the next level. And the haunting question of why UMass couldn't locate yesterday's level of play before New Year's is bound to come up.
To avoid it, a very imperfect team needs to play almost perfectly from here on in. That's the scoop, folks.
"The guys know," forward Chris Kirkland said. "We've just to go out and play hard every night." And hope, as usual, that it's not too late.