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When Massachusetts struggled to a 6-5 start this season, the Minutemen seemed to be in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years. But after last Saturday's 81-71 victory over La Salle, UMass (19-6, 11-1 in the Atlantic 10) had won 13 of its last 14, including six conference road games, to virtually lock up another berth.
The turnaround is similar to one the Minutemen pulled off last season, when Massachusetts put together a 14-4 run after having dropped six of its first nine games. That slow start had been expected. UMass was fresh off a 35-2 season and a Final Four appearance but had lost Marcus Camby, the 1996 player of the year, to the Toronto Raptors and coach John Calipari to the New Jersey Nets. This season the Minutemen were slow to adjust to the loss of guards Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso, both of whom graduated, and at times it seemed that their departure might be insurmountable. Instead, the Refuse to Lose! slogan adopted by Calipari in '92 kicked in. "This team has a chance to do great things, but we have a lot of young guys who are still learning," says forward Tyrone Weeks, the only senior among four juniors, five sophomores and three freshmen on the roster.
No player has learned more than Lari Ketner, a 6'10", 268-pound junior center who has blossomed into an NBA prospect. He brought back memories of Camby by scoring a career-high 33 points in an 85-69 victory over Dayton on Feb. 1. Last Saturday he had 15 points and nine rebounds against a La Salle team that many Philadelphians had hoped he would play for after he graduated from nearby Roman Catholic High in 1995. "Last year I didn't have a lot of confidence, but now things are starting to click for me," says Ketner.
Things are also clicking for Massachusetts, which is poised to win its sixth Atlantic 10 title in the last seven years. The Minutemen attribute their success mostly to defensethey are holding opponents to 38.7% shootingand to a young team that has grown up. "I was a little worried at the beginning of the season," says coach James (Bruiser) Flint, "but they grew up faster than I thought."
Issue date: February 23, 1998
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