eeping steadily faithful to their innately unsteady nature – one that's perhaps natural to a young, rebuilding-type team – the UMass Minutemen (4-3) first beat highly regarded Big East opponent Villanova 52-51 last week, only to follow with a loss to far less royally-rated Detroit, 63-59.
Really, even the games within the UMass games would have given any practicing schizophrenic a rush. The maddening Minutemen flailed around helplessly against the patented Villanova matchup zone during the entire first half on offense, while allowing 6-11 Wildcat widebody Malik Allen to push them around inside at will to the tune of 14 powerful points. Down by fourteen biggies at 31-17, UMass was extremely fortunate to trail only 31-21 at the end of one of the worst halves in UMass hoops history.
Or anybody's hoop history.
UMass looked disorganized and/or disinterested on defense, failing to get back in transition time after time after time. The offense was even more infuriating, ignoring the inside game in toto, as the Minuteguards were putting up hopeless three after hopeless-er three (they were 0-7 in the first half from treyland), most of the time with no teammate in the vicinity to rebound the brick under the basket.
Which, of course makes a bad shot into an even worse shot.
But at least this truly putrid performance wasn't entirely one-dimensional: it was tempered with poor rebounding, baleful boxing out off the boards, and a plethora of careless turnovers as well.
As huge hoop fan George Bush used to say, "It was ba-a-a-d! Bad!"
But then, just as even the most self-respecting UMass maniac was just about getting ready to concede this horror to the loss column, the Minuteguys came out for the second half breathing some furious fire. They clamped down on defense like they haven't in the longest time, holding powerful 'Nova without a basket for over 10 minutes! Of course, since they still couldn't shoot from the outside to save their lives, their comeback was still painstakingly painful and exceedingly slow. Finally, at the 7:10 mark, UMass took over the lead at 38-36, capping a 17-5 run (which took over twelve and a half minutes!) on a basket by Monty Mack.
Besides the deliciously devastating "D", the key for UMass was a manic Chris Kirkland – who, continuing his much-improved play of late, bounced around and over the befuddled Wildcat defenders as if they were rooted into the floor, scoring 18 points in the second half (out of a Minutemen total of 31).
And all of that still would been for naught if it wasn't for gifted new Minuteguard Shannon Crooks. One of the main culprits of the fetid first half – he was shooting an onerous 1-12 from the floor before the last minute of the game – Crooks hit an unbelievable three from way out deep, giving UMass a 52-49 lead with just fifteen brief ticks left on the clock.
"That was a big shot for us," a much-relieved Minuteman mentor Bruiser Flint understated during the postgame euphoria. "A big, big shot."
Yes – also try, huge, humongous, outsized, enormous, and incredibly phat. Even beyond the mere fact of the big victory it led to, who knows what would have happened to the youthful team mentally after squandering such a courageous comeback against such a good team?
Probably, pretty much what happened in the next game. Still shooting the ball as if they needed an extra-large compass to find the basket, UMass dropped a painful 63-59 defensive struggle to a 4-2 Detroit team that reached the NCAA second round last year but, at the same time, hails from an obscure conference (the MCC) and lost three starters.
Though Kirkland had another huge effort (17 points, 6 rebounds, two assists and a steal), the Minutemen couldn't hit the ocean from the shore overall, shooting just 38 per cent. Particularly surprising was sizzling Monty Mack's icy effort from the floor (4 points on 2-11 field goals).
On the positive side – yes, there was one – the talented Crooks is visibly warming up (13 points, 4 rebounds, 4 steals) to Coach Flint's system. And 6-11 rookie big man Micah Brand, extremely gifted as well, had 11 points and four rebounds in just 22 minutes of playing time off the pine.
Even more important, UMass' low scoring totals are totally misleading. True to his word, Coach Flint's guys are racing up and down the floor at the speed of light, playing at a pace the players and the fans could only dream about over the last few walk-it-up and stuff-it-in seasons. The problem is, it's difficult to rack up points if you don't hit your shots.
And the Minutemen – just 40 per cent from the floor this season as a team, and only 32 from trey range – are missing their shots. Good shots, bad shots, close-in shots, long shots. Nor are they hitting their free-throw opportunities at an even average rate (only 62.7 per cent).
"The free-throw shooting, that has to get better," Flint said. "I'm not that concerned about our shooting from the floor, though, because we're creating quality opportunities for ourselves most of the time," Flint said. "And with our level of talent, as long as we keep on creating good looks at the basket, those shots are going to fall very soon for us."
They'd better. Because things aren't about to get any easier for this young team. Au contraire, next up is ACC power Florida State at the Orange Bowl Classic in Miami. Then, in the Puerto Rico Holiday Classic, the Minutemen face tough Southern Illinois and, should they win, nationally-ranked Tennessee. Then it's a road trip to Big East territory (Providence). And, after that, the Atlantic 10 conference season looms just around the corner.
So, if UMass' season is to become any kind of a success, a quick overall improvement in team's level of play becomes essential. And some consistency – in shooting the ball, in making better decisions on the floor – would be very welcome as well.