MHERST — Even the best player on the team needed practice, more than he needed a friend in the stands.
"What people don't realize is that the Marquette game was the first time I'd touched a basketball in two weeks," said Monty Mack, confident that his cold start for the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team will turn around soon. "I'm just trying to get the feel of the game back."
It hasn't been a good final season for Mack, and last week didn't make it better. Hobbled by an injury to his right ankle, the 6-foot-3 senior guard missed plenty of practice time before making his 2000-01 debut last week at Marquette, where he shot 4 for 13.
In two games, he's 8 for 30, and UMass (1-2) lost both. Mack's next game is Saturday at Oregon (4-0), and after playing with very uncharacteristic clumsiness in last week's 78-65 loss to Holy Cross, he's anxious for another chance.
But he also appreciates having a week of practice to catch up. He thinks he needed it, for he's convinced the lost practice time — and his tendency to expect too much of himself — affected him.
"I was so mad at myself (against Holy Cross) that I couldn't even catch the ball," said Mack, who had four turnovers in the defeat. "Every time I touched the ball, I did something wrong."
Even a good-luck charm couldn't help. Mack's close friend from Boston, B. J. Henry, was on hand against Holy Cross. Mack said he almost always plays well when Henry is in the stands.
Mack periodically talked with Henry during breaks in the action, which he said usually helps. But this time, nothing helped.
"I told him to keep talking to me, because I usually do better when he does," Mack said. "It didn't work out that way this time, but I told him to keep coming when he could, anyway."
With or without a cheering section, Mack said he has to stop trying to win games by himself.
"I think I put too much pressure on myself, and that's something I've got to stop doing," he said. "And when you sit out that long, you're also bound to lose some touch that you have to get back. That's what I'm trying to do."
Mack's return, hailed as a special achievement when he graduated on time in the spring (earning back a lost year of freshman eligibility for academic rules), got off to a terrible start when he was arrested for shoplifting in October. He quickly apologized, was suspended for two preseason games and the opener against Iona, but practiced with the team before injuring an ankle that is now healed.
UMass coach Bruiser Flint said Mack has been trying too hard to compensate for the bumpy start.
"He didn't play too well at Marquette, and I think against Holy Cross, he tried to make up for that," Flint said. "But it's over, and you can't make up for it."
So far, UMass has played better without Mack than with him, including a 67-65 win over Iona. But the Minutemen know they can't win consistently without him, and Flint said it's not all Mack's fault.
"We're not really playing together," Flint said. "When plays are run for Monty, we have a tendency to stand around and watch him. But everybody has to stay involved because otherwise, the offense gets stagnant and we take bad shots."
With 1,646 career points, Mack is second to Centenary's Ronnie McCollum among active Division I players. He's fourth all-time at UMass, where only Jim McCoy's 2,374 points seem unreachable.
Opposing defenses still focus on him, and Holy Cross kept him from receiving passes in good scoring position. But had Mack also made his open shots, the game might have taken on a different nature — and UMass might not be 1-2 after three games for the fifth straight year.
"I know we got off to a bad start, and I have, too," Mack said. "But if you look at the past, we get off to a bad start every time, and we usually turn it around."