MHERST — Monty Mack took extra shooting practice yesterday, trying to rediscover his misplaced touch.
Other players were scattered around Curry Hicks Cage, many spending time at the foul line, which has seemed booby-trapped at times.
After Saturday's shocking 78-65 loss to Holy Cross, the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team has a few days to pull itself together. But a 13-point loss to a Patriot League team set off alarm bells and left UMass — which had hoped to be 3-0 at this point — with a 1-2 record and plenty of questions.
"Our first loss, I think some people figured it was Marquette at Marquette, fine," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "But this was Holy Cross. People are disappointed, and I can understand. I'm disappointed, too."
"The sad thing is that if we had simply made our foul shots and rebounded better, we'd be undefeated," Flint said. "At least those are correctable, with some work."
UMass has been subpar from the foul line, hitting 46 of 79 for 58.2 percent. Opponents have hit 84 of 111, for 75.7 percent.
The offense has been further hampered by Mack's 8-for-30 start from the floor. But as the Minutemen prepare for Saturday's road game against Oregon (3-0 entering tonight's game against Portland), they are most concerned about their rebounding.
What was supposed to be a strength has been a disaster, with UMass outrebounded in every game. In the losses to Marquette and Holy Cross, the margin was a stunning 95-60, including 52-30 against Holy Cross, which had 20 offensive boards.
Flint thinks poor technique is the biggest reason.
"We're not making any moves under the basket," he said. "We're standing behind people and pushing them in the back.
"We think that just because we're big, we'll rebound, but we're just trying to wrestle with people underneath," he said. "And we're not going to win any wrestling matches."
"We're still trying to get used to each other in situations," UMass junior forward Jackie Rogers said. "But in the long run, we will be a good rebounding team."
Rogers, who came from junior college in Kansas this year, is part of a four-man low-post rotation that was expected to restore UMass' traditional rebounding presence. After three games, the quartet of Eric Williams (5.7 rpg.), Micah Brand (3.7), Rogers (3.3) and Kitwana Rhymer (3.0) has not solved the problem.
Hampered by foul trouble, Rhymer has suffered a big dropoff from last year, when his 7.6 rpg. ranked fifth in the Atlantic 10 Conference. Flint expects improvement from his big men, but says it's not all their fault.
"A lot of rebounds have come on second rebounds — tipped balls that a guard or small forward picks up," he said. "Everybody has to do better. We need our three returning starters — Kit, Monty and Shannon Crooks — to lead us while the others get acclimated, and they've been struggling."
Oregon plays some three-guard offense, but is still outrebounding its opponents by 4.3 boards per game. Granted, the opponents (Mississippi Valley State, Denver and Portland State) aren't headliners, but neither was Holy Cross.
The Crusaders did have the nation's leading returning rebounder in seven-foot Josh Sankes, who grabbed 17 boards against UMass.
"They were just kind of big, though, and it was hard to get around them," Rogers said.
Oregon has a 7-2 center with a notable name — Chris Christoffersen — but he doesn't play much. The Ducks, an NCAA tournament team last year, are led on the boards by 6-7 Bryan Bracey (8.0 rpg.), 6-4 Frederick Jones (6.3), 6-8 Julius Hicks (6.0) and 6-9 Flo Hartenstein (5.3).
Flint doesn't want his team to panic, but he knows the season's first crucial point is at hand.
"We just sat down and talked to the guys about their roles on the team," he said. "Maybe this team is just having growing pains."