AMHERST - Bolstered by a feeling that the worst may be over, the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team next faces Boston College, a team whose best players are scattered all over the basketball map, playing at other schools.
But as the Minutemen prepare for tomorrow night's 7:30 game at Worcester Centrum, their focus seems not so much on the opposition, but on themselves. Wednesday's 59-54 loss to Connecticut was viewed as a signal that UMass is capable of top-shelf basketball, whether or not the Minutemen have shown much of it.
"Don't be fooled by 1-4," senior guard Charlton Clarke said of the Minutemen's record. "We can compete with anybody. But we can't just talk about it. We have to come out and do it."
UMass prepares for tomorrow's game against Boston College (2-5), which is experiencing a talent drain after administrative controversies and transfers threw the program in turmoil a few years ago.
"But they're real little, and teams like that seem to give us fits," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "It's almost as if they play four guards."
For UMass, its own guard play will be worth watching tomorrow, if only because it may help gauge a fair level of future expectation.
In Wednesday's loss, the guards combined to shoot 5 for 19. Monty Mack went 3 for 10, and after last week's career-high 34 points at College of Charleston the UMass junior has gone 7 for 26.
The Minutemen scored 41 points in the paint Wednesday, a credit to the play of Lari Ketner and Ajmal Basit, but not much of a statement for the guards. In the last two games, the 3-point touch has yielded 7-for-30 results.
Mack hit back-to-back 3-point shots in the second half against Connecticut, but those came when Huskies guard Ricky Moore was out of the game - and when Moore was in, Mack was silent.
"I told Monty he wasn't catching the ball and squaring to shoot," Flint said on his radio show last night. "And if you don't do that, you're playing into Moore's hands because he's so quick."
But Flint believes Mack, who is averaging 19.2 points per game, will come around at shooting guard. He's more concerned about sophomore point guard Jonathan DePina, who has struggled in two straight games, played only 10 minutes Wednesday and was virtually invisible in the second half.
"We don't need Jonathan to play great, but we do need him to contribute," Flint said. "I don't think he did that Wednesday. When he's playing well, I can put Charlton and Monty on the wings, and that helps our chances to score."
Clarke played 37 minutes with seven points, two assists, and five turnovers. On one play, he dribbled a ball off his foot and out of bounds, with virtually no one guarding him. He also went scoreless (0 for 3) in the second half.
But Flint likes Clarke's aggressiveness under pressure, and if DePina remains ineffective, there is no other obvious option at the point. Sophomore Rafael Cruz has proven in limited time that he can score, but has not proven himself as a capable ballhandler or defender, and is used at shooting guard when he's used at all.
"I know Raffy can score, but you've got to be able to guard people, too," Flint said. "I get on him about that."
All five starters played at least 30 minutes Wednesday, indicating that Flint is shortening his bench.
"The game was so tight that I didn't want to change a lot," he said. "But everybody is going to get their minutes. I tell the guys that if they start counting their minutes, they won't be ready when we need them."