Massachusetts has a date with Xavier, not destiny.
That's what John Calipari wants you to believe, but he doesn't always stick to the one-day-at-a-time script. Not as long as the Minutemen maintain a perfect record, and Calipari and his players keep dropping references to the last game of the season.
Top-ranked UMass and its 20-0 record are in Cincinnati today for a regionally televised Atlantic 10 Conference game against Xavier. The Minutemen shrug when 38-0 is mentioned, but that's the record they could have on April Fools' Day, when the NCAA title game will be played at the Meadowlands.
"We're not playing to go undefeated," Calipari said. "We're playing to win a national title."
Calipari, who in eight seasons has taken UMass from the bottom of the Atlantic 10 to the top of the rankings, may not be dwelling on perfection, but he isn't ignoring it, either. He's consulted Gino Auriemma, who coached the Connecticut women to an unbeaten record last season, and every feel-good guru this side of Dr. Stuart Smalley.
"If you worry about what's happening down the road, it takes you away from what makes you happy today," he likes to say, but the possibilities -- and all the pitfalls they have maneuvered through -- are what make the Minutemen so intriguing.
It's been 20 years since a Division I team went unbeaten. Indiana had Scott May, Kent Benson and Quinn Buckner playing for a Bob Knight without the pot belly in 1976. UNLV in 1991 was the last team to finish a regular season unbeaten, but the Runnin' Rebels were denied a repeat NCAA title by Duke.
Are the comparisons a burden? Wouldn't it be better to get a loss out of the way, and deflate some of the pressure on the Minutemen before the NCAA tournament?
"People have said, 'Don't you think it would be better to have a loss?' " Calipari said. "We've been down or tied eight times at the half. We've had two overtime games, and been in five or six other close games. We've been tested. That UNLV team [in 1991] was winning every game by 25.
"We're not a dominant team. We just find ways to win."
The Minutemen made the East Regional final last year, but they lost Lou Roe, the A-10 Player of the Year, and were picked no higher than No. 6 and as low as No. 15 in the preseason publications. One of the overtime games last month was against St. Joseph's, which lost to Brian Ellerbe's kiddie corps at Loyola.
UMass has adhered to its motto of Refuse to Lose through a series of adverse situations, starting with the opener against preseason No. 1 Kentucky, when freshman guard Charlton Clarke broke his right foot. As a result, the "Puerto Rican Express" backcourt of Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso has played 1,484 of a possible 1,620 minutes.
The Minutemen were 6-0 and ranked No. 3 when word broke Dec. 13 that five players planned to sue the university over a 1994 Boston Globe story in which someone on campus leaked confidential information about grades.
The UMass athletic department was rocked by the Jan. 10 death of swimmer Greg Menton from a congenital heart problem. Four days later, a sense of dread spread when the Minutemen saw Marcus Camby, the leading candidate for national Player of the Year, lose consciousness for 10 minutes before they were to take the court at St. Bonaventure.
Donta Bright, the savvy senior forward, rushed into the locker room to alert the coaches. Bright is from Dunbar High, which also produced Reggie Lewis. Sixth man Tyrone Weeks grew up in North Philadelphia, which also turned out Hank Gathers. Lewis and Gathers died after collapsing on the court.
As Calipari accompanied Camby to a nearby hospital, the
Minutemen cried in the locker room, then went out and won by 13.
Four days of extensive testing ruled out heart problems for Camby, but didn't provide a clue to his collapse, other than his unhealthy propensity for junk food.
Camby's post presence was the difference in many of UMass' nonconference wins, particularly against Wake Forest's Tim Duncan and Memphis' Lorenzen Wright, but the Minutemen believe they got better in the four games he missed.
Camby was still being tested and observed at the UMass Medical Center when Bright dropped a career-high 32 on Rhode Island. Travieso got his career high, 33, in the next game against Duquesne. The two combined for 53 in an overtime win at Pitt.
"Marcus going down was like an inspiration to our whole team," said Padilla, the point guard who's averaging nearly seven assists. "It meant a lot to see the others step up. After he came back, they kept playing the same way. We don't expect Marcus to carry us the whole game.
"If Donta and Dana [Dingle, the other starting forward] make the offensive plays and Marcus is free is to do his thing, I don't think anybody can really stop us."
All of the elements were present in a 24-point pounding of Temple three days ago, only the second time the Minutemen have beaten the Owls on their home court.
For the second time in three games, Camby tied the school record with nine blocks. Padilla, who's averaging 6.9 assists, had nine. Dingle and Weeks shared team honors in rebounding. Bright, one of the nation's best finishers, converted a couple of transition baskets while being tackled. Two threes by Travieso helped break it open at the end of the first half.
UMass held Temple scoreless over the last 5:50 of the half, the 13th time this season an opponent has gone five minutes or longer without a point.
Calipari never let up on his players.
The lead was 13 early in the second half when he glared at Bright and called a 20-second timeout. When Dingle didn't box out at the defensive end five minutes later with the lead down to 10, Calipari took another timeout and met him at midcourt for some aggressive counseling.
The tenacity isn't just turned on when the striped shirts show up.
"Come watch our practices," Bright said. "We play football at practice. Everyone plays hard."
Some just not hard enough. Calipari worries about Camby's endurance, but he used six players through the first 38 minutes against Temple.
"I know I'm giving these guys a lot of minutes," Calipari said. "There are times when [Inus] Norville and Weeks have played great, but they need that consistency. We're trying to paint a crystal-clear picture of how they have to play if they want to get in there. It's time to pull up the shorts and get serious."
The Minutemen weren't exactly joking when they tackled the nation's most difficult nonconference schedule, which included Kentucky, Memphis, Wake Forest, Syracuse, Georgia Tech and Maryland.
It's not a particularly up year for the A-10, but there is a hazard ahead Feb. 17, when UMass plays at No. 13 Virginia Tech. The regular-season finale is at Louisville, and all of Philadelphia will be booing when the Minutemen go after their fifth straight A-10 tournament.
If the streak ends, UMass will just start another, and try to make it last through the NCAAs.
"We're trying to win every game, but [the unbeaten record] is not the end-all," Calipari said. "The end-all is winning the last game at the Meadowlands."
On the mark
Top-ranked Massachusetts (20-0) is past the most difficult part of the schedule in its bid to become the first team to go undefeated in the regular season since UNLV in 1991.
Passing the tests
............. ....... Rank
Date Opponent ....... then ... Result
11/28 Kentucky ...... No. 1 ... 92-82
12/2 Maryland ....... No. 19 .. 50-47
12/6 Wake Forest .... No. 10 .. 60-46
Georgia Tech .. No. 21 .. 75-67
Syracuse ...... No. 13 .. 65-47
1/4 Memphis ......... No. 3 ... 64-61
Down the road
2/11 Temple ........ No. 41
2/17 at Va. Tech ... No. 13
3/2 at Louisville .. No. 29