laying much better since the turn of the century, the UMass Minutemen (11-10, 5-3 in the Atlantic 10 Conference) were flying high with five victories in their last six games while entering into their toughest week of the season. However, there's nothing like playing Temple to bring you crashing back to earth, make you realize your limitations, add a few more worries you didn't even know you had, and simply grind you into the ground with a relentlessness you couldn't have previously imagined.
It's not just that the Owls are a legitimate Top 20 team, "truly in a class of their own in the Atlantic 10," according to UMass coach Bruiser Flint. It's also their frustrating style, that confounded and confounding matchup zone, played with such will and finesse, that teams find it nearly impossible to score against.
Certainly, offensively challenged UMass did not even come close to mounting a semblance of an attack in the 75-48 loss at the Mullins Center. With the Minutemen playing tough "D" at the beginning, the game was actually a close one until Temple went on an 11-0 run near the end of the first half to lead 34-21 at the intermission. But then Temple, led by fabulous 6-6 swingman Mark Karcher (who was unstoppable), stayed hot in the second half – and UMass never even got lukewarm. "No one stepped up for us," said Coach Flint after a truly sorry second stanza, during which Temple stretched its lead to as many as 32 points. "No one even came close to giving us any kind of an offense in this game."
Monty Mack scored 14 points for the Minutemen, including four three-pointers. But that was all she wrote, literally.
The main problem was that no one else plays the Owls' matchup zone all that well, a tough-to-teach, scantly-used defense that combines the best of zone and man-to-man principles by playing "man" within an area. So soph point guard Shannon Crooks, an improving quarterback who has never faced this terrifically tricky "D" in his entire career, simply never had a chance.
As a result, neither did his team.
"Against the matchup, it looks like you have shots all game," Flint said. "But you really don't. The best thing Temple does is to sucker you into taking hopeless shots that look like they have a chance."
Things were a bit better against Texas, another high caliber Top 20 outfit which plays an all-out, and easier-to-face, run-and-gun style. "We played really well during the second half," Flint said. "But we already were way down (31-16). And then we did some things in the end of the game, making some mistakes, that took away our shot at actually winning this thing."
UMass actually managed force its somber style on Texas, slowing the pace successfully to a crawl. But the Longhorns have 7-foot Chris Mihm, considered by many as the very best big man in the country, in the middle. And the big man (18 points, 12 rebounds, plus an amazing 8 blocks) played a bigtime game.
Thus UMass was estopped from doing the things it does usually well as a team (rebounding, defense); the Minutemen were outboarded 34-25, and yielded an unusually high 53.7 percent shooting from the floor. Mack (16 points) had help this time from Crooks (17) and Chris Kirkland (17 points, 9 rebounds), but the UMass insiders were thoroughly dominated and the bench provided next to nothing (a total of 2 points).
It's becoming clear that this season the Minutemen, even in their improved version, just may not be good enough to beat nationally ranked teams. Not even while playing well. And not even at home.
Luckily, besides the return game at Temple on Feb. 26, no such teams are left on the rest of the schedule. So, as long as they are playing at the top of their ability, some kind of a post-season tournament participation is still possible for UMass.