f UMass (9-8, 3-2 in the Atlantic 10 Conference) could just play Rhode Island every game...
How about every second game? Or would you settle for once a week?
As the age-old basketball adage says, there's nothing like playing a bad team to cure your problems. And the Rams, 89-50 losers to the Minutemen, are a really, really bad team this year.
It's bad enough to lose Lamar Odom, probable NBA Rookie of the Year, to the draft; and then lose your coach (Jim Harrick, who went to Georgia) as well. But now the usually rambunctious Rams – they have won over 20 games the past four years in a row – have no experience, and little talent, to speak of on their entire roster, or on the coaching staff. Worse, they are run by a rookie point guard (Zack Marbury, the New Jersey Nets' Stephon Marbury's little bro) who doesn't have a clue and, at the same time, is a legend in his own mind.
As that great hoop aficionado, George Bush, would tell you, "They're ba-a-a-d! Bad!"
They were bad enough to make offensively deficient UMass look like the Lakers last Saturday. The Minutemen haven't scored 89 points all year (with the exception of the game against Div. III. American U. of Puerto Rico), In fact, UMass sometimes looks like it would have trouble scoring 89 in an empty gym. But, then again, an empty gym might defend better than Rhode Island did in this game.
UMass, shooting out to a huge lead immediately, turned Marbury over pretty much at will, getting much of its offense off the defense. Then, gaining confidence, even the Minutemen's troubled half court attack got going as the team buried the Rams under an avalanche of easy baskets.
No UMass player, except the three deepest bench guys, shot under 50 percent in this game (the team is shooting just 41% on the year). Besides the usual Chris Kirkland-Monty Mack two-headed attack, the Minutemen received great play from point guard Shannon Crooks (13 points, 4 assists, 5 steals), rookie big man Micah Brand (9 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks), and, amazingly, even rarely used forward Winston Smith (9 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals).
The team shot 51.4 percent from the floor, and 38.5 from trey range. UMass also out-rebounded the Rams 46-38, had 24 assists against only 12 turnovers, and forced Marbury and Co. into 21 miscues.
It was an outstanding effort, one that was unfortunately absent in the week's earlier game, a bitter 57-52 home loss to Dayton.
It was bitter because 13-3 Dayton was a good but beatable team, the kind of squad the Minutemen must take the measure of at home if they are to reach the next plateau and make the NCAA field in March. Let's face it: beating Rhode Island, while important, is one thing. But beating Dayton would have been doubly meaningful in the eyes of the Seeding Committee.
"We played well against Dayton, too," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "Except for those eight minutes..."
UMass, in fact, had a 12-point lead during a well-played first half before things turned sour on the offensive end. Then, in the late going, Monty Mack hit four free throws in a row to bring the Minutemen within 54-52 with 35 seconds to play. UMass then even got the ball back on a turnover, but Chris Kirkland missed an 8-footer and Dayton clinched the game with a couple of free throws.
"Win or lose, the kids are playing hard," Flint said. "They're giving me everything they've got and that is all I can ask for. We just need to hit some shots."
Against teams other than Rhode Island, we might add.
"Against every team, we've been defending and rebounding very well," says Flint. "In fact, I think this is the best defensive team I've ever had here. Because of our quickness, we can press, we can use flexes and everything. But we must gain some confidence and consistency on offense."
UMass is now going on a huge road trip, playing two decent but highly beatable teams, Duquesne and Virginia Tech. Winning both games would give meaning to the apparent momentum the team has gained over the past four games (three good wins and the annoying loss to Dayton).
"Sometimes we actually play better on the road," Flint says. "And this week would be the ideal time to do just that."