PRINGFIELD - In the press conference following the Massachusetts men's basketball team's 66-59 victory Nov. 24 over Marist, a reporter asked coach Steve Lappas what it would take to bring the UMass basketball program back to where it was in the years surrounding the Minutemen's 1996 Final Four run - coincidentally, the last time the Maroon and White began a season 3-0.
"You know, I don't want to be a jerk," said Lappas, the 19th boss in UMass hoop history. "But, you just have to win. It's that simple."
And Tuesday night in Springfield, the Minutemen did just that, knocking off previously undefeated Oregon 62-58 in front of 4,427 at the Civic Center. Its first win against a worthy opponent - according to several college hoop critics - UMass overcame an early 11-point deficit and held off the Ducks in the final seconds to continue its three-game season-opening undefeated streak.
"I was just very proud of the way our kids responded last night, playing against a very good team," said Lappas, whose squad held Oregon to 30 points below the Ducks' season average. "I told my assistants before the game, 'We'll win the game 74-71, 74-72...I didn't think that we could really keep them in the fifties, especially after the way the first eight minutes started."
Oregon scored 17 points in those first eight minutes, connecting three times from behind the arc, thanks in part to its high-octane style of play in transition. But UMass held strong throughout and with the help of some late aggressive low-post heroics by Micah Brand, survived the close encounter.
"The kids were really happy after the game, it was a big one for us," Lappas said. "Because as I told them, Marist and Arkansas-Little Rock, those are games you have to win in order to stay in the hunt and you have to beat teams like Oregon and N.C. State in order to get in to the NCAA Tournament."
The key to UMass' Duck defeat was a defensive switch Lappas made about nine minutes into the first half - switch from a 1-2-2 zone to a man-to-man defense. And the Ducks managed only 41 more points in the final 31 minutes of regulation.
"One of our goals was to stop their transition and we did a very good job on the defensive end," said Lappas, whose last Springfield Civic Center appearance came during a high school game back in the early 1990s when he was head coach at Manhattan College. A recruiting trip for Lappas, he was there to lure Derek Kellogg (not present Indian Pacer guard Travis Best who was also playing in that game) to his Jasper squad.
It was former UMass skipper John Calipari, however, who signed Kellogg to the Minutemen. And in the point man's final two seasons, UMass advanced to the Sweet 16 and Final 8, in that order.
In Calipari's eight seasons at the University, he took the Minutemen to the postseason seven times, seasons that ended twice in the NIT, and five times in the NCAA Tournament (second round or higher). And credit that success to a program that had players that believed in their system. The Minutemen of the Calipari era didn't question what their coach was doing - because they were winning - so they obeyed their mentor and had fun doing so.
The problem with Calipari successor James "Bruiser" Flint's five-year stint was that he failed to win big games. And when the collapses begin to add up, players begin to lose faith in the coach's blueprints, and success tends to decline.
It's for this reason that Tuesday's win over Oregon was so huge for UMass basketball nation. In Lappas' first big game, he came through. He put the correct personnel on the floor at the correct time, he made effective in-game changes, and proved to his new team that he could help them win big games.
Plus, it's still November.
"They have really responded well to what we're trying to do," said Lappas, whose second big test comes this Saturday, as UMass heads to Raleigh, N.C. to face off with 4-1 ACC foe North Carolina State. "And we've been on them pretty hard. It's good for them to see some positive results early. They have new coaches, and for them to see some positive results early can only help."