MHERST — In truth, the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team has been pressing almost all year, but it's been the wrong kind of pressing.
The Minutemen feel they've been pressing in an emotional sense, as in putting too much pressure on themselves. But for the last game-and-a-half, they've shifted their energy to a defensive press, and their confidence level has risen accordingly.
"I thought we did a good job of pressing and being in the right spots," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said of last week's effort against Fordham, an 82-52 win that ended a three-game losing streak and lifted the Minutemen to 7-7 overall and 1-1 in the Atlantic 10 Conference. "We learned from the St. Bonaventure loss (70-60 last Thursday) that we could press a little and make it more of a scramble game."
Sunday, UMass plays at St. Joseph's (6-6, 1-2), a team Flint thinks will be difficult to press. But after enjoying some success with the strategy, he's not about to abandon it now.
"St. Joseph's puts four good ball-handlers on the floor at once a lot of the time, so we may have to press in a different way," he said.
Before the season began, UMass expected to press frequently, but the plan was sidetracked for several reasons, including an inability to score. It's always easier to pressd after a basket, and baskets were becoming scarce during the losing streak.
But in the second half of the loss to St. Bonaventure, UMass cut a 23-point second-half deficit to 12 with the help of pressure defense that briefly rattled the Bonnies. St. Bonaventure regrouped, but Fordham never did.
"When teams have pressed us before and made us play faster, we've normally played better," Fordham coach Bob Hill said. "But against UMass, we didn't concentrate, and we lost our composure."
The result: 21 Minutemen points off turnovers, 32 fast-break points and 14 steals. Fordham committed 23 turnovers and never totally recovered from a 15-0 run that gave UMass an 18-6 lead.
After the game, some UMass players initially misunderstood questions about "pressing" to mean their emotional state. But they also said a pressing defense made basketball fun again, and allowed them not to be "pressing" in terms of putting too much pressure on themselves.
"We just said to forget that if we made a mistake or missed a shot, to forget it and to get it back on defense," guard Monty Mack said.
"The press definitely worked for us," guard Shannon Crooks added.
Helped by opportunities created from pressure defense, UMass has scored 121 points in its last 60 minutes. Hill was reluctant to give the UMass pressure defense too much credit, however.
"I don't think their press had anything to do with it, except for that (15-0) run," he said.
But St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli believes that when UMass is applying defensive pressure, the Minutemen become much more dangerous.
"I told (Hawks' point guard) Larry Jennings that UMass is a good test," Martelli said. "They put great pressure on the ball."
Flint has never promised to use the press exclusively, and he feels UMass may have to pick its spots Sunday. But the feeling now is that finally, this unpredictable team may be on to something.
"You can't press everybody, and you can't give everybody the same dosage," Flint said. "But we've still got to play the way we play."