MHERST - For the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team, getting to the Atlantic 10 tournament may be almost as tough as getting to the NCAA tournament.
UMass planned to travel by bus today to Philadelphia, where the Minutemen will play St. Bonaventure in Thursday's A-10 quarterfinal at First Union Spectrum. But all travel, especially through Connecticut, seemed at the mercy of the weather patterns last night.
Whenever the Minutemen arrive, they will be met with a daunting task. UMass (13-14, 11-5 Atlantic 10) must win the conference tournament to reach the NCAA field, and must reach Saturday's final to qualify for the NIT with a .500 record.
Doing either would first involve beating St. Bonaventure (18-10, 9-7), which swept two games from UMass during the regular season, including Saturday's 66-59 decision at the Mullins Center. That was just the Bonnies' second road win in eight Atlantic 10 games.
Then, UMass will have to beat regular-season champion St. Joseph's in the semifinal, reaching a championship game that could see Xavier or Temple awaiting the Minutemen.
"We must like getting our backs put up against the wall, so that we can claw our way out," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "Because we keep doing it."
Flint's own chances of returning as coach appear to hinge on whether UMass can win the Atlantic 10 tournament. He has been trying to keep the conversation on — basketball, knowing more distractions will not help the team.
"To be honest, I'm not worried about it," he said. "Besides, I still think we can win the tournament."
Maybe it's good that the Minutemen must return to Philadelphia, where they seemed to leave their game in the locker room at halftime of last week's 84-69 loss at St. Joseph's.
UMass was outscored 51-20 in the second half of that game, then followed up by losing to a St. Bonaventure team in which three players were playing with injuries and a fourth, center Peter Van Paassen, was out with ankle problems.
"Our decision making has killed us in the last three halves, along with our shooting," Flint said. "We'll miss a few shots, and then we get tense.
"I told the guys that when we beat Xavier (59-49 Feb. 14), we played smarter and didn't try to make the hero's plays we've been trying lately," he said. "We've got to be more patient."
Despite losing its last two games, UMass has reason to think it can win this tournament. The Minutemen are without major injury problems, and they can play a rotation nine deep, which will help if three games in three days are required.
Avoiding a first-round game helps, too, though it would have helped more had UMass finished higher than fourth place. The top three seeds all face a quarterfinal opponent determined by tomorrow's first-round games, but UMass instead gets St. Bonaventure, the No. 5 seed that also draws a bye.
Tournament activities are scheduled to begin tonight with announcement of the league's annual award winners, as voted by the coaches.
The player of the year honor is expected to come down to either Xavier center David West or St. Joseph's guard Marvin O'Connor. Flint said he voted for West.
UMass guard Monty Mack is expected to repeat as a first-team all-conference player. Mack is hoping to snap out of a slump, after shooting 9 for 33 in last week's two losses.