EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Neither negative press, nor injuries, nor disciplinary problems has knocked Massachusetts off course this season.
Tonight, Tulsa will attempt to derail the Minutemen in the East Regional semifinals. And based on the tenacity that UMass has displayed during a season laced with turmoil -- not to mention the Minutemen's deep, talented roster -- the Golden Hurricane is in for a formidable challenge.
The trouble started for UMass before the season's opening tip, when a Boston Globe report stated that four of its players were on academic probation. Coach John Calipari, who in seven seasons has transformed the Minutemen from an Atlantic 10 doormat into a national power, spent several weeks denying the report.
That distraction didn't stop the Minutemen (28-4) from opening the year with a stunning, 24-point victory over defending national champion Arkansas. Two weeks later, they beat Maryland at the Baltimore Arena to fuel a 16-game winning streak, during which the Minutemen spent several weeks as the nation's top-ranked team.
February brought more headaches. The month started with a hamstring injury to sophomore center Marcus Camby, who missed four games. UMass lost two tight games to George Washington during that stretch.
Finally, after the second loss to GW five weeks ago, Calipari dismissed senior guard Mike Williams, the team's three-point specialist, after he violated a number of team rules.
Problems? What problems? Since Williams' dismissal, the Minutemen have gone 10-1, won their fourth consecutive Atlantic 10 championship, knocked off eight straight opponents and have combined the type of hard-nosed defense and unselfish play that suggests maybe this is the year that UMass will take its first national championship trophy back to Amherst.
A victory tonight would take the Minutemen to their highest point ever in the NCAAs. Three years ago, their first trip to the Sweet 16 ended in the semifinals. The past two seasons, they have lost in the second round, including last year's fall against Maryland.
"This year, we weren't excited about winning the Atlantic 10. We weren't excited about winning the Stanford game [in the second round]," Calipari said. "This team has a bigger picture in mind."
And, as senior forward Lou Roe, the team's leader and national Player of the Year candidate, said, the Minutemen's resolve has deepened with each pothole they have encountered.
"We've been through enough problems throughout the year," Roe said. "It's pulled us together more. Everybody's feeling mentally strong We're a very confident basketball team right now."
"The turmoil has been mostly created by the media," Calipari said. "We've had no problems. We've had normal things that normal teams go through."
During its 10-1 run, UMass has been abnormally good. Defense has long been a Calipari trademark. This year, the Minutemen, sparked by Camby, their shot-blocking intimidator, have held opponents to 38.7 percent shooting from the field and 66.1 points a game. Over the past 11 games, UMass has been suffocating, giving up only 59.4 points a game. Six of its past eight opponents have failed to reach 60.
At the offensive end, Williams' absence has opened up the attack for others, and senior point guard Derek Kellogg's fine distribution skills have been imitated by his teammates. The Minutemen have averaged 17.3 assists per game in their last 11 contests.
"Without Williams, their shots are being spread out more, and they've picked up even more defensive intensity," said Tulsa coach Tubby Smith, who brings the sixth-seeded Golden Hurricane (24-7) into the regional semifinals for the second straight year.
"I think they are a better team [without Williams]. It looks like they are playing together a lot better."
The Minutemen's latest challenge is to overcome a Tulsa team that boasts impressive bulk inside in the form of centers Rafael Maldonado (6 feet 11) and J. R. Rollo (6-10), along with forwards Ray Poindexter (6-11) and 6-4 Kwanza Johnson.
While they're overcoming Tulsa's size, UMass also must be mindful of 6-5 sophomore guard Shea Seals, who snapped out of a shooting slump and produced 53 points last week in tournament victories over Illinois and Old Dominion.
Calipari guaranteed that the Minutemen will not overlook the Golden Hurricane. He even showed the team tapes of Tulsa's first-round upset of UCLA last year to stress that Tulsa means business.
"We're at our best when we have some fear in our hearts," Calipari said. "Watching that UCLA tape put some fear in our hearts."