AMHERST - It's that time of year again, the time when the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team scrambles back from its early season doldrums.
At least that's what UMass (3-5) hopes will happen as a four-game homestand, the longest since the opening of Mullins Center in 1993, resumes with its second installment Tuesday against Davidson.
"That's how we operate," point guard Charlton Clarke said. "This is when the turnaround always happens, when the school is empty and students are gone, the phone isn't ringing off the hook and there are no distractions.
"It shouldn't have to be that way," Clarke said. "But it is."
He's right. UMass overcame a 6-9 start to reach the 1997 NCAA tournament, and a 6-5 start to do it again last year. Last week's 59-46 win over Detroit opened the current homestand and gave UMass coach Bruiser Flint reason to think it can happen again.
"I know we hadn't been playing well, but we also lost some games to good teams on their floors," Flint said. "Now we're home and with school out, we can practice, practice, practice, twice a day.
"I tell the guys this is my time with them," he said. "You have time to break things down and show them. We've always been pretty good at this time of year, even before I became coach, and I've been saying all along we'll turn it around."
UMass has a chance to turn it around now. After Davidson, the Minutemen play Virginia Tech and Iona at home, Fordham and St. Bonaventure on the road and Duquesne at home - all winnable games.
This was supposed to be a season in which the early schedule was more reasonable, making a dramatic semester-break turnaround unnecessary. But while UMass wasn't as effective as it had hoped, the schedule wasn't as easy as it was expected to be, either.
UMass lost at St. John's, which has become a Top 25 team, and at College of Charleston and Marshall, which have both been tough at home. The other losses came to No. 1-ranked UConn (59-54) at home, and Villanova (7-2 when it played UMass) on the road.
The win over Detroit was a boost, partly because it came over a good team and partly because of positive signs from certain key Minutemen players. One was backup point guard Jonathan DePina, who played well in a 13-minute stint and is a more key ingredient than his minutes suggest.
When DePina plays well, Flint can move Clarke to a wing, possibly going into a 3-guard set with Monty Mack. It's clear that Flint wants DePina in the rotation, which for the most part was limited to seven players Saturday, but he has no comfortable option at the point if DePina falters - other than to play Clarke there for 35 minutes or more.
As for Clarke, he scored 19 points against Detroit, and Flint said he knew why.
"He didn't settle for 3's," the coach said. "He took the ball to the basket.
"Charlton has a decent shot, but not a great shot," Flint said. "When he settles for the jumper, it can kill us. But he drove to the basket and settled us down, and we played a smarter game overall on offense."
Flint was also happy with forward Ajmal Basit, for a different reason. Basit didn't take a shot in a 28-minute outing, but grabbed five rebounds and defended well.
"I'm just glad he didn't go out and act like a fool," said Flint, who dislikes Basit's showboating. "I told him to cut the antics, and he got a couple of big rebounds and played good defense."
Basit's calmer play may be significant because starting with the UConn game, UMass had begun to attract attention for trash-talking and excessive flamboyance, with Basit the ringleader. Flint prefers the tone-downed version he saw against Detroit.
"Aj does that stuff on the ESPN games, because they show it," Flint said. "But I told him to let his game do his talking, and he played well."