OXFORD - It may be hard to imagine a basketball coach equating his sport to wrestling, but that's the approach Miami University coach Charlie Coles is taking toward the final week of the regular season.
The Redskins (15-8, 10-5
Mid-American Conference) confront a brutal three-game week to close out a run of four MAC games in eight days. It begins at 7 p.m. today against faltering Eastern Michigan in Millett Hall.
Miami stands only one game back in the loss column behind league-leading Bowling Green, which travels to Ohio U. Wednesday in what's shaping up as a possible three-way tie for the regular-season title among those three teams.
The Redskins cannot afford a loss in any game this week. After EMU, the Redskins play host to Ball State on Wednesday and travel to Akron on Saturday. At least one victory will assure MU of a home game in the first round of the MAC tournament.
''Let's take two guys wrestling and say they're wrestling out there in the grass,'' said Coles, nodding out the window of his office Sunday at the vast lawn surrounding Millett Hall. ''Now let's take those two guys out to Hueston Woods and put them out on a cliff. Now if someone falls, you're in trouble.
''That's what these games mean right now. These games now are about surviving.''
The Redskins can thank Wally Szczerbiak for keeping their hopes alive last Saturday at Kalamazoo. The sophomore, who led the team in scoring (15) and rebounds (11) against Western Michigan.
''Every college player wants to win a basketball championship ... winning the league tournament is great because that means you get to the NCAA,'' Szczerbiak said.
''But any team can get hot over a three-game stretch. The
regualr-season league champion is what gets respect in the conference and that's what matters.
In addition to facing defending champ EMU and preseason favorite Ball State, this is as much a physical grind that must be hurdled. Sunday's practice, while short, was spirited.
''I felt fine in practice today,'' said Szczerbiak, who played 38 minutes Saturday. ''Plus, it's good we've got two of these games at home when you got the home fans cheering you, it gives you more adrenaline. You last longer. You go faster - it's always nice.''
Having won two straight and three of the last four, Miami may be using the modest win streak to charge into the postseason.
''I think the guys are having a good time. I always thought a team that's happy with a lot of energy at the end is enjoyable,'' Coles said. ''But that doesn't guarantee a win.''
EMU enters tonight's game having lost four straight and five of its last six.
''I just think it's the MAC,'' Coles said. ''This league is as balanced as any in the country this year. They got a potent attack. This is a pretty darn good team coming in here.''
Miami has to pay more attention this time to 5-foot-5 guard Earl Boykins, certainly one of the more exciting players in the league. The junior scored 35 points against Miami in the first game.
''Boykins did pretty much what he wanted to do,'' Szczerbiak said. ''We've got to make working his job harder. He makes that team run and if you cut of the head, the body won't function. That's what's our plan.''