Refuse to Lose
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 defense—they are holding opponents to 38.7% shooting—and 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."
Alive and Kicking In the Big Sky
In August 1995, when Ritchie McKay arrived at Portland State to restart a program that was dropped 14 years ago for financial reasons, the only equipment he found was a couple of moldy uniform shorts that evoked not only another era but also another sport. "You know those Speedo swimsuits?" asks McKay, 32, who had been an assistant at Washington before agreeing to take the reins of the Vikings. "That's what those shorts reminded me of."
McKay didn't have any state-of-the-art players either. In the year he spent gathering equipment and resources in preparation for the 1996-97 season—and otherwise breathing life into a program whose past glory was embodied in one player, All-America Freeman Williams, the nation's leading scorer in 1976-77 and '77-78—McKay had just two redshirt players. Brian Towne had transferred in after walking on at Washington, and Jamie Snook was a junior college transfer from North Idaho. They played against McKay and assistant Brad Soucie almost every day from Oct. 15 to late February.
On recruiting visits McKay had no highlight tapes to play for prospects. He couldn't even dangle the unlikely prospect of an NCAA tournament bid because Portland State isn't eligible for one until 1999. "I had to find kids with very high character and sell them a dream," says McKay.
By the start of last season he had collected a number of low-rated, high-character players and put together an ambitious schedule. Picked by The Sporting News to finish last out of 306 teams, the Vikings almost upset Mississippi on the road in their first game and went on to finish 9-17. This season has been even more surprising: Portland State, led by junior forward Jason Hartman, has beaten Oregon and lost to Oregon State, Washington State and Loyola-Marymount by a total of 13 points; and at week's end the Vikings were a game out of first in the Big Sky Conference with an 8-4 record (13-10 overall).