ccording to UMass mentor Bruiser Flint, the teams in the Atlantic 10 Conference are so tightly matched this season that, "in order to get one of the post-season spots in March, you have to hold your home court and win some close games on the road."
Miraculously enough, the unpredictable Minutemen (8-7, 2-1 in the Atlantic 10 Conference) -- a team that was staggering badly just a week earlier -- did just what Doctor Bruiser ordered for a change, in a solidly played 73-69 road victory over St. Joseph's.
"Whew, we needed this," Flint sighed with relief after his current team defeated the squad he starred on as a player. "Two good games in a row. How about that? Maybe we can build on this one for the long run."
And who knows with this team? Maybe the Minutemen can do just that. After all, the victory over St. Joe's did follow a 30-point blowout over Fordham (82-52), and also came over a pretty solid team, with UMass playing hard and well once again. UMass next faces Dayton (a tough team that was just upset by Fordham) and woefully weak Rhode Island at home, so the major momentum-building the coach is hoping for is not totally out of the question.
If UMass keeps on playing the way they did against St. Joseph's, that is.
The Minutemen, while not spectacular by any means, were far more solid than they have been at any other time this season. In this game, that's exactly what they had to be, due to the fact that St. Joe's -- a team that prefers to play half court, and lacks an inside power attack -- is UMass' mirror image in most ways.
In a matchup like that, you simply must execute better than your opponent in order to win.
The Minutemen executed brilliantly. The team, shooting just 40 percent on the season, shot with 50 percent efficiency (26-52). It hit an unbelievable 6-11 treys. UMass had 17 assists against only 12 turnovers, a ratio it can usually only dream of. And, perhaps most importantly, the Minutemen also outfought the Hawks on the boards 31-24 (11-5 on the offensive glass), giving themselves the extra attempts at the basket you need to win in this type of grind-it-out game.
Another thing you must do to win them is "make big plays," including having players do extra things they don't usually offer. Accordingly, power forward Chris Kirkland, besides his customary 18 points and 8 rebounds, had 6 huge assists. Monty Mack, besides his usual scoring (19 points), racked up 4 assists as well. Shannon Crooks, he of the low shooting percentage and high turnover ratio, shot 3-5 (2-3 treys) and committed just one single miscue with the ball. And slumping center Kitwana Rhymer stayed out of foul trouble for a change and had a dynamite double-double, with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Solid, solid, solid. Nothing but solid play, as far as the eye can see.
Nevertheless, when it comes to this team, it's always dangerous to deal with "shoulds" or attempt to see too far into the future. Still, let's live dangerously: UMass should beat Rhode Island at home. So the upcoming Dayton game should loom huge in the team's future.
The thing is, if UMass beats the Flyers, they're 4-1 in the league and looking pretty good for a post-season spot in spite of their spotty play so far on the season.
Dayton was 12-2 a few days ago, including an amazing victory over nationally ranked Kentucky. Then, equally stunningly, they fell to Fordham, a middling-at-best team easily crushed by UMass.
The Flyers have a great inside-outside attack, with star guard Tony Stanley and 6-10 center Mark Ashman. However, their questionable point play often results in poor shooting for the other players, who can't create their own shots.
Dayton also tends to be turnover-prone, a good match for UMass' strict all-court defense.
So it's going to be one of those tough-but-winnable games. That's just the kind the St. Joseph's contest was. And it's the kind UMass must win more than a few of, if the team wants to find itself playing big games in March.