AHAINA, Hawaii - University of Massachusetts fans didn't want to believe coach Steve Lappas when he made repeated warnings that this year's Minutemen were young and may struggle early.
In addition to the natural preseason optimism that exists every November, it looked like Lappas had a team more geared toward his style of play. With the returning players a year older, people just assumed UMass would be better.
Fans should believe him now.
The Minutemen are young and they proved it in Maui. They showed some impressive things at times, but really struggled at others.
UMass gained nothing from this trip in terms of record with losses against its two Division I foes. But they played two good NCAA tournament-tested teams. Other than maybe Connecticut and Xavier, on paper Indiana and Utah will be two of the best teams UMass will face this year. Both opponents praised the Minutemen's athleticism and potential.
In addition to Jackie Rogers, who hadn't played in a year, and Marcus Cox, who also didn't play last season and is playing under much bigger expectations than he has before, UMass played three players who'd never played in college before. As a unit, the baptism under fire led to some unpleasant burning.
If they apply the lessons they gained in Maui, the Minutemen can still have a good season, but they have issues they need to address:
1. PLAYING TOGETHER - With its collection of new players, this team doesn't have each other figured out yet. This will probably be cured with time, but it's still an issue.
2. POISE - Lappas was irritated with his team's lack of ability to handle adversity, and rightfully so. In addition to his players picking up two foolish technicals, they made some poor decisions in tight spots.
Seniors Micah Brand and Jackie Rogers need to set a good example for their younger teammates, but they haven't so far.
3. INTERIOR DEFENSE - The Minutemen missed graduated senior Kitwana Rhymer in this tournament. Rhymer had a difficult season last year offensively, but his presence defensively in the paint could still make teams change how they operated inside. Brand and Rogers couldn't slow Indiana's George Leach and Utah's Tim Frost, neither of whom are on anybody's All-America list.
When the Minutemen play teams with large inside players again, they need Brand and Rogers to play better or the team needs to play different defensively.
Gabe Lee is athletic and looks to have potential, but he's clearly still learning the college game. Freshman Alassane Kouyate has yet to get off the bench because Lappas doesn't think he's ready yet.
4. ANTHONY ANDERSON - After last year's great rookie campaign, Anderson has struggled. He hasn't played badly, but he's been in a shooting slump and his overall performance has been well below his own standards. As the squad's on-court leader, if he can bring his performance back up, it's reasonable to think other players could follow.
5. SHOOTING - Lappas wants UMass to be a good 3-point shooting team, but it hasn't been yet. Against the Hoosiers and Utes, the Minutemen made 8-of-38 from deep. Free-throw shooting is an issue, too. Not just making them, but getting to the line. UMass only attempted 32 in the first two games compared to 52 by its opponents.
Monday's game at Central Connecticut State becomes a big game now. The Minutemen won't likely be 100 percent over their jet lag. The Blue Devils were in the NCAA Tournament last year and will be hungry for a chance to upset their higher-profile neighbor.
If the Minutemen want to right their ship, that would be a big step with Boston College and Connecticut looming.
Matt Vautour can be reached at email@example.com.