ALMOST PERFECT

UMass Minutemen may be New England's next dynasty

FIRST the Cabots, then the Kennedys, now the Minutemen?

New Englanders have always embraced their dynasties, and the scrappy basketball team of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is proving this year that it qualifies as a dynasty-in-the-making.

When head coach John Calipari arrived here eight years ago, the Minutemen were a beat-down team playing in a gymnasium with dirt floors. Now they have climbed near the top of college-basketball rankings for several years running and are coming off of a near-perfect season. The secret to their meteoric rise: teamwork, teamwork, teamwork.

The Minutemen's next stop is the Atlantic 10 conference, which they have swept for the past four years.

From there, the nation's No. 2 college team, currently sporting a 26-1 record, will two-step its way to the Big Dance - the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament for 64 of the best college teams, which begins March 14.

A blue-collar, hard-hat kind of team, the Minutemen are not known for flashy play or a star-studded roster. Aside from center Marcus Camby, a candidate for national player of the year, most of the players are not highly recruited.

''They're known as a real working man's team,'' says Dan Wetzel, associate editor of Basketball Times in Rochester, Mich.

''UMass kind of squeaks past every team. It's usually not pretty, or flashy. They have to work really hard to win, scrap for it,'' he says of the team that sports the motto ''Refuse to Lose'' on its warm-ups.

Coach Calipari gets much of the credit for the team's success.

''He's a great teacher of the game, one of the best practice coaches, and an incredible motivator,'' Mr. Wetzel says.

The grandson of an immigrant coal miner from Pittsburgh, Calipari had served stints as assistant coach at the University of Kansas and the University of Pittsburgh. When he arrived at UMass in 1988, he began building a program from the ground up, literally. From humble beginnings at the dirt-floored Cage, he persuaded the university to invest a lot more money in the men's basketball program - and he networked to bring better players to the state school.

Today his team is playing to noisy, sold-out crowds in the 9,493-seat, three-year-old Mullins Center - a high-tech gym that would make even big-name private schools, such as Boston College, envious.

The UMass Minutemen have their own radio station and World Wide Web home page. Twenty-eight of the Minutemen's games were broadcast on national television this year, and Calipari has a weekly television show that is broadcast in the Boston area.

The team has one of the best records in college play (Kentucky, which just slid into the No. 1 position, is 24-1). For the past four years, they've played in the NCAA championships, making it to the Sweet 16 round in 1992 and the Elite 8 in 1995.

According to Wetzel, Calipari's coaching style is somewhat similar to that of University of Indiana's Bobby Knight - the flamboyant coach who holds the 1976 record for undefeated national champions. (The Minutemen flirted with tying that record, but then lost last Saturday's game to George Washington University 86-76.)

''Both are great developers and teachers of the game,'' Wetzel says. Each is '' very demanding of his players, very vocal with his players, and knows how to get the most out of his players.''

Calipari's program, however, was publicly criticized in December 1994, when four Minutemen were reportedly put on academic probation. But the coach, who admitted he may have been a little soft on the team, suspended one player for poor grades. The team, under Calipari's tenure, has a 75 percent graduation rate, and eight of 13 players made the honor roll last year.

On the court, Calipari drills players incessantly, stresses unselfish play, and keeps them focused. Each player knows how to carry the ball. When Camby missed four games in mid-January, other players, including Donta Bright, Dana Dingle, Tyrone Weeks, and guards Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso, picked it up.

''We're not the team that comes out and overwhelms you with this, that, or the other,'' Calipari says. ''We overwhelm you with aggressive play, unselfish basketball, good starts, and good defense. UMass looks like if they lose, they're going to the electric chair.''

Travieso credits the coach for the cohesiveness of the team and says the guys are very close and good friends off the court as well as on. He and Padilla were both born in Puerto Rico - on the same day. Both were raised in the United States, but didn't meet until they were in high school.

Coming from the Dorchester section of Boston, Travieso says he has great family support. ''I had about 20 people out here today to watch me,'' he says, flashing a brief smile after Saturday's loss.

The campus is alive with support, too. UMass basketball stickers and banners are stuck on everything that doesn't move. ''I watched this huge line wrapped around the Mullins Center in the pouring rain Friday to buy tickets for Saturday's game,'' says Emily Kozodoy, a grad student at UMass and former yearbook photographer.

Ms. Kozodoy's mother and grandmother are fans, too. ''All my grandmother wanted for her birthday was a ticket to the UMass-Boston College game,'' she says. ''She loved it.''

The Minutemen had a 26-game winning streak this year. In addition to their Atlantic 10 conference play, they've played big schools like University of Kentucky, Boston College, and Syracuse University.

As the wins mounted, so did the publicity and pressure. Calipari calls this publicity ''poison'' to his team.

''I tell them all the time that the publicity and the notoriety are like poison. As long as you don't swallow it, you're ok. Well, we swallowed it,'' he said after Saturday's loss.

But he and Travieso say the loss may take the pressure off the team and better prepare it for tournament play.

''We were happy with the attention, but then people were saying the pressure, the pressure, do you feel pressure?'' Travieso says. ''We never talked about being undefeated. We just wanted to go out and play basketball and have fun.''

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