ith a pair of well-played victories over Duquesne and Virginia Tech, UMass (11-8, 5-2 in the Atlantic 10 Conference) may have finally reached that long-awaited "next plateau" last week. That's the level where you're playing solidly enough to always beat the teams you should beat.
Even better, both wins came on the road, which is extremely essential in conference play.
Best of all, UMass won a game while playing atypically fast, pressing ball (84-75 over the physically gifted runners from Duquesne), then won one while playing typically torturous "UMass ball" (49-41 over Va. Tech). That's the type of versatility all good teams must show. Anyway, as Minutemen coach Bruiser Flint says, "So the score was in the 40s. As long as I have 45 and the opponent has 44, so what?"
Against Va. Tech (9-10, 3-4), UMass' defense indeed bordered on the unbelievable. The Minutemen held the Hokies to just 30.9 percent shooting from the floor (14.3 from trey range), which will win you a multitude of games in any league. UMass, of course, was no offensive juggernaut either, in a game that was only slightly slower than molasses. But it was that type of a matchup, and an important win. So, as Bruiser says, "Who cares?"
Especially when the Duquesne game proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that this improved UMass team can score plenty if forced into a racehorse type of game. In fact, with its always-solid defense, UMass is now 8-0 this season when scoring over 70 points.
With the entire squad playing an outstanding first half, UMass led the Dukes 44-35 at the intermission. With Chris Kirkland and Kitwana Rhymer both at the top of their form, the team's inside-outside balance was exceptional; led by the sizzling Monty Mack, the Minutemen also hit 5-7 threes.
But then came trouble. Duquesne, a very gifted young squad in the rebuilding mode after recent disasters – they play four freshmen plentifully – came out playing sizzling ball and actually built a 55-51 lead with a terrific 20-3 run at the beginning of the second half. During this period, some of UMass' old faults – taking shots too fast, carelessness with the ball – re-reared their ugly heads.
But the Minutemen stormed back, led by Mack's outstanding clutch shooting and Kitwana Rhymer's powerful boardwork. An 8-0 run built a 67-62 lead that UMass never relinquished. Mack, playing fabulously sharp, finished with 32 points, while Rhymer had an outstanding 14 rebounds, 3 steals, and 4 blocked shots.
Against Va. Tech, with the snoozy pace, those type of numbers were impossible to reach, but Mack (22 points) and Rhymer (15 rebounds) did their thing well once again. Rhymer, staying out of foul trouble – and also much improved and more confident of late – has been in double figures rebounding, three of the past five games. And Mack has led the team in scoring in 11 out of the last 12 contests. Ironically, both have been helped greatly by the improving play of new point guard Shannon Crooks. "Mack gets better looks because opponents must guard Shannon, who is creative and can shoot," Flint says. "Crooksie has really calmed down, he's not forcing the play so much, and his shot selection is so much better. Plus he's very talented physically and an extremely gifted defensive player."
Of course, the team's improved play and newfound versatility will come in handy this week as UMass, suddenly back in the TV spotlight, is about to face a couple of Top 25 toughies in Temple and Texas.
More accurately, that's playing slower-than-humanly possible Temple, and run'n'gun Texas.
"I know the game against Temple will be in the 40-s," Flint smiles. "But so what? As long as we take care of the ball and attack that matchup zone with some maturity, we've got a chance."
Indeed, this has to be the best possible time for UMass to play nationally ranked teams. They're playing much, much better. Still, is this oftentimes offensively challenged team good enough to beat those guys? "We'll give it a shot," Flint says. "Actually, the way we've been playing, we'll give it a good shot."