Coach John Calipari calls it "the golden, 400-pound bull's-eye." For the past month, ever since Massachusetts became major college basketball's last remaining unbeaten team, his Minutemen have carried the imaginary bull's-eye with them to every game.
"We like it," Calipari says. "You see, we think the pressure is on the other team because they're going to have to play great for 40 minutes to beat us. They know that, and we know that. So what we try to do every night is take the bull's-eye, hand it over to the other guys and say, 'Here, you hold this for a couple of hours.' "
The UMass bull's-eye has never loomed as large as it did last Saturday in Blacks-burg, Va., where the top-ranked Minute-men faced 10th-ranked Virginia Tech in what was arguably the biggest game in the 35-year history of Cassell Coliseum. Tech had won 17 straight games in Cassell, an old barn of a place whose seating is so steeply banked that a sellout crowd of 10,052 looks and sounds twice that size. Revved-up Hokies fans were saying their team was ready to snap the UMass streak.
Virginia Tech trailed just 56-48 with 4:33 left, despite a Marcus Camby masterpiece (31 points, 10 rebounds, live blocks). But over the next 1:15, UMass scored seven consecutive points, and the rout was on. Final score: Massachusetts 74, Tech 58.
The Minutemen improved to 25-0 (while dropping the Hokies to 19-3). At week's end they needed just four more victories to become only the fourth Division I team in the last 20 years to finish the regular season undefeated. But more than a few people argue that UMass would be better off if it lost a game before the start of postseason play.
Nevada-Las Vegas was the last team to reach the NCAA tournament unbeaten, in 1991. The Runnin' Rebels were the defending national champions, and they rolled through 34 games without so much as a scare. Their first tight game was in the national semifinals against Duke, and they couldn't handle it, blowing a five-point lead with 2:31 to play and falling to the Blue Devils 79-77.
Jerry Tarkanian, who coached that UNLV team, thinks his team would have benefited from a pretournament loss. "The biggest problem with the win streak is that the pressure mounts with every win," says Tarkanian, now the coach at Fresno State. "We destroyed everybody all year, and it got to the point where it was hard to get the players up. Even Duke. We had beaten them by 30 the year before. It's easier to get a team back down to earth if it's been humbled once."
The Minutemen haven't been humbled, but they have been scared. They trailed Maryland by 16 in the first half before winning by three. Against Memphis they squandered a 16-point lead and fell behind late in the game before again winning by three. They needed overtime to beat St. Joseph's, Pittsburgh and Xavier.
"People keep saying they shouldn't be Number 1 because they're in the Atlantic-10 and they keep playing close games," Virginia Tech coach Bill Foster says. "I've faced five or six Number 1 teams in my career, and they can play with any of them."