Another bumpy week in the life of University of Massachusetts men's basketball ended over the weekend, this one a bit bumpier than most.
"We've just got to keep on going, because it comes down to what we do in the (Atlantic 10) tournament," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said after Saturday's 59-56 loss to Rhode Island in Providence. That capped a week in which UMass (11-13, 7-5 Atlantic 10) won a game, lost a game, lost a player and seemed to find some spark.
On Tuesday, Flint threw forward Ajmal Basit off the team, provoking Bob Hurley, Basit's coach at St. Anthony's High School in Jersey City, N.J., to say Flint's inexperience caused him to mishandle the player.
Flint didn't take kindly to the comment.
"I've been in this job three years," said Flint, 33. "What makes him an authority? Bobby Hurley is the only person who says that - that's his thing.
"For a guy with all his experience, would you go into the papers and kill another coach?" Flint asked rhetorically. "I would never do that."
Despite the distractions, UMass played with vigor in last week's 18-point win over St. Bonaventure, and again at Rhode Island before running out of gas in the second half. The Minutemen now face Wednesday's game at George Washington, where 5-foot-4 guard Shawnta Rogers - a leading candidate for awards as the nation's best player under 6 feet tall, and as league MVP - presents the next challenge.
Games remain against George Washington and La Salle on the road, and Xavier and Temple at home before the Atlantic 10 tournament. All are NCAA tournament contenders except La Salle, and the Explorers are 8-2 at home.
Flint resorted to some extended use of zone defense against Rhode Island. It's not a defense he likes, since he thinks it weakens a team's rebounding capabilities, but the results for much of the game were fairly good.
"We've worked on it more, and we're more comfortable in it," forward Chris Kirkland said.
Flint especially favored the zone when his bench players were in the game, and against Rhode Island, they were in there more than usual. With Rafael Cruz at the top of the zone, Flint tried to compensate for a player whose man-to-man skills are suspect.
But no defense could hide poor shooting at the other end, and UMass shot 7 for 25 after halftime as a 15-point lead slipped away.
"We had some decent looks, but they just didn't fall," Flint said. UMass did get some quality minutes from Winston Smith, who hit the second 3-point basket of his career and played 18 minutes, his longest stint this season.
"I'm confident in my offense," said Smith, whose main task was defending Rhode Island forward Lamar Odom. "When I'm open, I'm going to shoot the ball."
Charlton Clarke finally reached the 1,000-point career mark Saturday, but said the stress fracture in his right foot has limited his game.
Clarke said the injury has caused him to shy away from taking his trademark shot, what he calls a "floater" that comes after he drives the lane. Clarke likes to push off on both feet when taking the shot, but after shooting 9 for 44 in the last six games, he may restore the shot to his repertoire by pushing off on only his non-injured left foot.
What he wants more than points, however, is a positive finish to a negative UMass season that - perhaps mercifully - enters the final two weeks of the regular season.
"It's been a tough year, as everyone knows, but I want us to go out as a winner," Clarke said. "If we could do that, after being down in the dumps, that would mean a lot."