Minutemen serving notice UMass rebounds, takes aim at NCAAs

February 15, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WORCESTER, Mass. -- Bruiser Flint can only imagine what most college basketball fans thought back in early December when they looked at a mid-February matchup between Massachusetts and Maryland.

Or if they looked at it at all.

The Minutemen, having lost three starters and their coach from last year's Final Four team, were off to a horrendous start under Flint, a former assistant to John Calipari.

The Terrapins, having lost four starters from a team that had been upset in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, were undefeated but largely unproven and mostly unnoticed.

And now?

"It's much better than it looked like it would be," Flint said of today's 1: 30 p.m., regionally televised game at the Centrum. "You don't have the marquee names, but it's still a pretty good game."

Massachusetts (15-10) doesn't have Marcus Camby or former Dunbar star Donta Bright, but the Minutemen have something they were missing early in the season: confidence.

A four-game winning streak and a stretch of nine victories in its past 10 games have revived NCAA tournament hopes for Flint's team. For that reason, it's a much bigger game for the Minutemen than for 10th-ranked Maryland (19-5).

"If we win, it's a big game," said Flint, a former assistant at Coppin State. "If we lose, it's another game against a Top 10 team we've played this year."

An early schedule that included losses to No. 2 Wake Forest, then-No. 12 North Carolina and then-No. 16 Fresno State, as well as ankle injuries to starters Tyrone Weeks and Edgar Padilla, wrought havoc on Flint's head-coaching debut.

"We had to get healthy, we had to get confidence and we had to get used to playing with each other," said Flint, 31, the second-youngest Division I head coach in the country. "It took some of our guys to realize who could do what."

In fact, the only loss in the past month for the Minutemen was an 87-84 overtime defeat at home to Xavier of Ohio on Feb. 1. It came less than two days after a 68-63 win at George Washington.

That is a similar type of schedule, only in reverse, that the Terrapins face in preparing for today's game. They had less than 48 hours to get ready for the Minutemen after Thursday night's 73-57 win against Florida State.

"When we played Xavier we were definitely fatigued," Flint said.

Maryland coach Gary Williams knows he'll be a bit tired after staying up until the wee hours yesterday morning watching tape of Massachusetts. He's hoping that his players went straight to bed.

"You're in charge of the young guys," Williams told Obinna Ekezie, only half-kiddingly, as the sophomore center walked out of the team's locker room at Cole Field House after playing the Seminoles.

Ekezie smiled.

"They won't listen to me," he said, jokingly.

Though the turnaround is quick for the Terrapins, this is not uncharted territory. This marks the fifth time in the past four seasons that the schools have met. Flint said yesterday that he hopes to continue the series at on-campus sites.

"We're quite familiar with a few of their players," Williams said. "And [assistant coach] Billy Hahn is as good as anybody in the country in breaking down films and telling me what I need to know."

Considering that the Terrapins have secured at worst a .500 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference (Maryland is 8-4, a half-game in third place) and a near-certain NCAA tournament bid, it will be interesting to see how they approach their last nonconference game.

On the surface, it seems absolutely meaningless. But with a victory today, Maryland has a chance to move back up in the national rankings as well as build some momentum going into the last four ACC games, three of them on the road.

"We don't want to have a letdown," sophomore guard Laron Profit said. "We want to keep it going. We're not thinking about it [NCAA berth]. We just want to win as many games as we can."

Said senior forward Keith Booth: "This is a game that's become kind of a rivalry and you always want to beat a team that's your rival."

While the departure of Bright, his first cousin and best friend, takes some of the edge off the game for Booth, Ekezie has plenty of motivation coming back to a city he lived in for two years.

After leaving Nigeria, Ekezie played two seasons at Worcester Academy before coming to Maryland. Ekezie said he expects many of the school's 300 students and his former coach to be at the game.

"There'll be a big crowd rooting for us," he said.

With a crowd of around 11,000 expected, it could have the atmosphere of an NCAA tournament game. Not what was expected in early December, when Massachusetts was struggling and Maryland was still in the shadows.

"They've been playing well all year; we've been playing well the past month," Flint said. "We're looking forward to it."

Pub Date: 2/15/97

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