o more noisy Christmas presents for any of the UMass players, please!
In fact, the only explosions the Minutemen (6-5) have experienced of late were from some full-of-sound-and-fury blow-up toys in the locker room that coach Bruiser Flint laughingly complained about. The truth is, though, that the beleaguered Bruiser would have tolerated all the upheaval much better if a few of his talented players had produced some explosions on the floor as well throughout the team's ill-fated Christmas trip to Puerto Rico.
Instead of explosions, however, the Minutemen gave Flint little more than whimpers to end the Millennium. "All throughout the trip, we seemed flat, tired, giving a nothing performance," Flint said. "Sure, we've struggled time to time on offense all season. But, defensively, we've always given an effort. Until now, anyway."
"You name it, we did it. And, on this trip, we did it very, very badly."
Rightfully expecting far more from his guys after the rousing road victory over Florida State, Coach Flint indeed has a right to suffer from some shock. And he has the right to see things through dark glasses, with some negative exaggeration as well.
Things in Puerto Rico did not start out all that badly for UMass. In fact, the Minutemen did play some nasty defense against Southern Illinois in the opener of the Puerto Rico Holiday Classic (a 65-63 loss), holding the solid Salukis to just 32.3 percent shooting from the floor. The effort did lack on the defensive boards, however, yielding only 16 offensive rebounds. And the 25 turnovers, measured against only 11 assists, were a major problem no matter how one looks at things.
UMass' point guard play, by Jonathan DePina and Shannon Crooks, is still not very good. In fact, it's becoming eerily reminiscent of last year's. And that is not a good thing.
The point pair has not been outstanding, neither in creating good shots for teammates – UMass shot only 40.8 percent, though it did hit 6-12 from trey range – nor in guarding the ball. Crooks, at least, is scoring (averaging 14.3 ppg. on the trip). But DePina, the more fundamentally sound of the two, has stopped doing that after a couple of promising offensive efforts earlier in the season.
The Southern Illinois game also showed inexperienced center Kitwana Rhymer's penchant for foul problems (only 19 minutes, no field goals) as sub pivot Anthony Oates was forced to play 14 mostly mediocre minutes (2 points, 3 rebounds). UMass was understandably out-rebounded 37-31, 16-7 on the offensive glass, "one of the major differences in the game," according to coach Flint.
Crooks (16 points,) Monty Mack (17), and Chris Kirkland (18) led the attack, as usual. But, also as usual, the trio did not get sufficient support from any other players.
"We need one more guy to play better," says Flint. "One more consistent offensive producer, game in and game out."
To create more scoring opportunities, Flint has even benched the defensive devastator and longtime starter Mike Babul at the small forward spot, replacing him with good-shooting Ronnell Blizzard. The problem is, good-shooting Ronnell Blizzard has stopped shooting, good or otherwise, hitting 1-1 fg. in 28 minutes against S. Illinois and going just 0-1 in the Boston College game.
To which one can only say: ouch.
But more about the B.C game later. Horror shows deserve a shocking ending, after all.
In between, UMass played the lower division American University of Puerto Rico, easily waxing the weaklings, 102-65. "But, you know what?" asked Flint. "We did not play well in that game either. They were just so bad that it did not matter."
Mack (22 points), Kirkland (14) and Crooks (17) led the scoring party, with rookie forward Micah Brand chipping in with 17 productive minutes (11 points on 5-6 from the floor, 5 rebounds).
But what did the overwhelming victory mean? Underwhelmingly nothing. Not if the next game against Boston College, for fifth place in the tournament, is any indication.
Remember, B.C. is the least of the (Big) East. Remember, UMass has beaten them the last six or seven times the two teams knocked heads. And remember also, UMass already defeated this team earlier in the season, 74-67, in a well-played road game.
But perhaps that was the problem. Boston College, with some new blood, is on the upswing. Whereas UMass seems more into mood swings.
"They were really, really, up for us, "said Flint. "And we were really, really flat."
The end result was not much of a game, not from the immediate get-go. B.C shot out to a 48-28 halftime lead and never looked back, winning 83-59 and dominating the Minutemen in every aspect of the game.
"Only Monty Mack played well," said Flint. "And, even him, only on offense." Mack, despite all kinds of trick defenses applied upon him – box-and-ones, triangle-and-twos – scored 20 points on 7-11 from the floor.
But Kirkland, so hot of late, was a horrible 1-9 with only 3 rebounds. Rhymer was decent (13 points, 6-9 shooting) and Crooks also scored 11 points. "But no one defended for us at all," said Flint sadly. "It was an inexcusable effort."
"I think we're tired," added the coach. "We've had exams, we've traveled a lot, we've been mostly on the road. So I sent everyone home to rest and rejuvenate. I hope we can come back with a new freshness, a new attitude."
"Because I know that we are better team than that."
With the Atlantic 10 Conference season lurking right around the corner – and the conference seemingly so strong – the Minutemen had better be better than what they've shown lately. Much better, in fact. Or another total disaster, even worse than last year's Titanic tumble, may be in the offing once again.