his year's UMass Minutemen (15-12, 9-5 in the Atlantic 10 Conference) may be one of the most honest teams ever in the entire history of college hoops. Which, strangely enough, is not necessarily a good thing.
On the one hand, UMass gives a great effort pretty much every time out; it's a team that certainly plays to its potential. On the other hand, the Minutemen are also inordinately predictable. Sure, they'll beat teams they should beat nearly every game but, equally routinely, they have been unable to defeat teams rated higher than themselves.
Which, generally, tends to lead to a good-but-not-great record, like UMass' current 15-12 slate. And that might get you to the NIT – but unless you are suddenly capable of some out-of-the-blue upsets at conference tournament time, it'll never propel you into the NCAAs.
Thus another one-up, and one-down, week for UMass shocks no one. The Minutemen trashed last-place Rhode Island 57-37 on the road by putting out their customary extra-fine defensive effort against the lamentably lame-o Rams. But then even their most honorable, most desperately intense, game plan wasn't enough to beat terrific Temple in the 72-54 loss.
Of course, Temple just beat No. 1 Cincinnati into a hapless pulp last Sunday – and in Cincy City, no less. Also, the Owls have won 17 of 18 games and are considered by some experts as a major Final Four contender.
But that's just the point: to get to that "next plateau" – the lofty level where you have a decent shot at making the NCAA's 64-team field – you have to beat some teams like that at some time.
And the Minutemen plainly haven't. They've beaten all the weaklings and crushed all the mediocrities that have been tossed their way routinely, like clockwork. But just over the past few weeks, they also lost to almost-ranked Xavier and Dayton, and nationally ranked Temple (twice), and Texas, as well.
This second game against Temple within the last month looked so good, too. For a while, anyway. UMass, playing fairly awesome defense themselves, had Temple miss its first 8 shots while the Minutemen's conference-leading ballhawks (9.5 pg.) actually had the usually mistake-free Owls turning the seed over in the open court. Thus, in spite of the fact that they were entirely unable solve Temple's fearsome matchup zone once again, UMass led by seven (27-20) late in the first half.
The lead was still the Minuteguys' (27-24) by intermission. Temple, totally stymied, shot just 30.8 percent at this point against UMass' manly man-to-man and darned difficult zone. And Coach Bruiser Flint's crew had the Owls' top star, 6-6 future NBA-er Mark Karcher (who killed Cincinnati with a 20-point second half), locked up tight and living in the Twilight Zone (1-10 shooting, 0-5 treys).
So there was hope. Shoot, there just had to be hope.
And then, as that famed hoop aficionado Agatha Christie would say, There Was None. Temple opened up the second stanza with a fearsome 29-8 burst, led by the dreaded matchup and the fine shooting of guards Quincy Wadley and Lynn Greer. UMass, unable to score any points at all (30.8 percent from the floor in the second half) put too much pressure on its own fine "D" – which, eventually, cracked.
As it always does against Temple. Or other better teams.
But not when facing rancid crews like Rhode Island, of course. UMass, in fact, put on its finest defensive performance against the Rams in their one-sided road victory. The Minutemen were so dominant, in fact, that rarely used 6-7 forward Ronnell Blizzard could celebrate his 22nd birthday (on Feb. 22) in fine style, scoring a career-high 9 points, grabbing 4 rebounds, and rejecting two shots.
UMass, 15-12, still faces George Washington (at home) and St. Bonaventure (on the road) before closing out the regular season. Strangely enough, no matter how predictable they have been, both of those contests figure to be unpredictable, toss-up type, games.
These are the kind of games which, should UMass be able to win, would build their confidence immeasurably for the post-season – where all the opponents will be "better" teams.