MHERST - When Bruiser Flint coached his first University of Massachusetts men's basketball game in 1996, Winston Smith was a freshman starting forward, Monty Mack was sitting out his freshman year for academic reasons, and Jonathan DePina was a senior at South Boston High School.
Nearly five full seasons have passed, and as the three UMass seniors play in their home arena for the final time today, the ups and downs of their careers have come rushing back.
But as much as they've all been through, they still believe the high point of their UMass careers may be yet to come. The Minutemen (13-13, 11-4 Atlantic 10), who meet St. Bonaventure (17-10, 8-7) at noon today at the Mullins Center, hope to reach the NCAA tournament by winning next week's A-10 tournament.
If that happens after this year's 2-9 start, it would probably qualify as the crowning accomplishment for all three players. Today's regular-season finale is bringing forth a mixture of feelings about the past, present and future.
"It feels like I just got here," said Mack, whose 2,100 career points rank second to Jim McCoy (2,374) on UMass' all-time scoring chart. "If we make the NCAA tournament, that would probably be my highest moment, because I know most people don't think UMass is back on the basketball map.
"But when I leave, I'll probably miss Bruiser more than anybody else," Mack added. "He's been my male role model."
St. Bonaventure has several players nursing minor ailments, and won't take today's game lightly. By winning, the Bonnies would finish fifth in the A-10 and earn a first-round bye — and a welcome day of rest.
A Bonnies' win today would also set up a UMass-St. Bonaventure rematch in an Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinal Thursday in Philadelphia, assuming Temple beats George Washington and the Minutemen fall to fourth.
UMass can still finish second, third or fourth. If the Minutemen win today, they'll finish second or third, depending on tomorrow's Xavier-Dayton outcome.
All of this is important, but so is winning on Senior Day.
"It's always emotional," Flint said. "Two of these guys (Mack and Smith) have been here since day one of my career as head coach.
"One of them (Mack) is the best player I've coached and one of the best ever at UMass," Flint added. "And Winston, well, you see these people as your own kids, and then you see them grow into men."
A special place is also found in Flint's heart for DePina, who came to UMass after Boston College reneged on a scholarship promise in 1997. The 5-foot-9 senior arguably has been his team's most consistent player this year.
"He's probably been one of the most criticized players who have been here, and people forget these are just kids," Flint said. "I knew it bothered Jonathan, how much he disliked playing at the Mullins Center because he might get booed. I told him he had to play with confidence, and he has had just a great, unbelievable senior year for us."
A fourth UMass senior, center Kitwana Rhymer, will also be honored today. Rhymer will qualify for another year of eligibility, however, if he graduates on time this spring.
That's how Mack came back this year. Smith is also a fifth-year senior who underwent knee surgery as a sophomore in 1997-98, and redshirted that season.
Like Mack, Smith says the value of his UMass years has not been measured simply in basketball terms.
"I think it's helped me as a person, even the adversity as I look back on it," the 6-foot-5 forward said. "All I can tell people is that Bruiser is a good person, and he looks out for his kids. My high point has been seeing us go to postseason three out of four years, and maybe four out of five if we make it this year."
onty Mack is about to leave UMass as one of only two players with more than 2,000 career points.
Another player might consider the names that he passed along the way, like Lou Roe, Al Skinner, Marcus Camby and the most notable flash in the UMass record book - Julius Erving.
But Mack insists that records aren't his concern. Remind the senior guard that his 2,100 career points rank him second to only the 2,374 points amassed by the free-shooting Jim McCoy (1988-92) on the all-time scoring list, and he doesn't sound particularly impressed.
``It just feels like I put up a lot of shots when I hear that,'' Mack said yesterday while getting ready for what will most likely be his last game in the Mullins Center - today's regular-season finale against St. Bonaventure.
The fifth-year senior will be honored along with Jonathan DePina, Winston Smith and Kitwana Rhymer in an annual Senior Day ceremony. Rhymer, like Mack before him, has a chance under Prop 48 guidelines to return for a fifth season if he stays on track academically and graduates with his class this spring.
Perhaps then Rhymer will truly understand what Mack meant when he said yesterday, ``The biggest thing about (today's ceremony) is that it reminds me that I'm leaving these guys.
``It's the same feeling that little kids get when they realize they have to move to a new school. You have to start over.''
But not quite yet, if Mack can help it. As one of the first kids from Boston to grow up with the dream of actually playing UMass basketball, Mack watched the Minutemen take home the Atlantic 10 title every March.
Next week's Atlantic 10 tournament represents Mack's last chance, not to mention his final shot at an NCAA tournament berth if the Minutemen win the A-10 tournament title.
``Everyone was pretty down from the St. Joe's (loss last Tuesday), but we just had a bad second half, and more than anything, everybody is just ready to bounce back from it now,'' he said. ``Guys just want to put that game behind them, and get into the Atlantic 10 tournament. We all want to play our hearts out for those rings.''
Mack's proponents - and most notably his coach - believe the guard should also take home the conference's player of the year award next week.
That would appear to be an uphill struggle at the moment for Mack, with Xavier center David West and St. Joseph's guard Marvin O'Connor receiving the most notice. O'Connor, in particular, appears to be gaining popularity among the conference coaches who vote on the honor.
``I think he's taken for granted,'' coach Bruiser Flint said of Mack. ``I know that Marvin O'Connor and David West are having great years, but you don't even hear them mentioning Monty for the award on A-10 TV. On most nights he has been the best player on the floor, on both sides. He had that run of (eight) straight 20-point games this year, and on most nights he's getting everyone's best defense, because of who he is.
``I'm proud of what he's done,'' Flint added. ``He'll go down as one of the best who ever played here. The difference is that he hasn't had the teams around him that some of those other guys had. But the kid's been great. I'm proud of the things he's done.''
MHERST - University of Massachusetts fans should get used to the sight of St. Bonaventure's mustard and brown uniforms. The Minutemen could be seeing a lot of them in the next six days.
No matter who wins Saturday's noon game between the Minutemen and the Bonnies at the Mullins Center, an upset would have to occur somewhere else in the Atlantic 10 for the two teams not to have a rematch Thursday in the A-10 Tournament.
A UMass win guarantees it at least third and possibly second place in the league and the assurance it will avoid St. Joseph's or Temple until the A-10 Tournament finals. St. Bonaventure likely would fall to sixth. Next week the No. 6 team faces No. 11 Rhode Island, with the winner facing No. 3.
If the Minutemen win, Dayton could derail the rematch. If the Flyers upset Xavier Sunday, UMass would leapfrog the Musketeers into second and Dayton would bump St. Bonaventure out of sixth.
A Minuteman loss and a Temple win (over George Washington) would put UMass in fourth and Bona in fifth, setting up a quarterfinal game between the Minutemen and Bonnies. The winner would have the unpleasant task of facing first-place St. Joe's Friday in the semifinals.
"This is an opportunity for us to get 12 wins in the conference. If we win, we can finish no less than third," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint. "We already have the bye, but you'd rather play a team that played the night before."
Getting that first-round bye is critical for the Bonnies as well. No team has ever won the A-10 Tournament without one since the league expanded in 1995-96. But St. Bonaventure has key players battling injuries, and getting them an extra day off could go a long way.
Senior center Peter Van Paassen is battling chronic tendinitis in his right ankle and has missed four of the Bonnies' last eight games. He's played in the team's last two games, but is listed as questionable for today.
Flint wouldn't be disappointed to see Van Paassen show up in street clothes.
"Over his career he's had great games against us," Flint said. "He can score. He can rebound. He kills our big guys."
Guard Patricio Prato and Marques Green both have returned from earlier injuries as well.
St. Bonaventure won the Jan. 13 meeting between the two schools, 66-65, on a late 3-pointer by Vidal Massiah. The Bonnies have won five of their last six games against UMass, including three straight.
"The last game was a tough game," said senior guard Monty Mack. "We have to take the bad things and turn them into good things."
In addition to the tangible importance of the game, there will be significant emotional significance to the game for UMass. It is the last home game for its seniors.
It marks the final chance for Minuteman fans to see Mack at the Mullins Center. The senior guard will leave Amherst as the school's second-highest career scorer. He currently has 2,100 points.
He will be honored along with teammates Jonathan DePina, Winston Smith, Kitwana Rhymer and student manager Matt Collier at the traditional Senior Day pregame ceremony.
"It means a lot to everybody. It's going to be a very special senior night for us," Mack said. "We're all close to each other, so I think you're going to see a lot of tears and a lot of hugging. We need to go out and play with that same emotion and play with our hearts."
For the second straight year the Minutemen will honor a senior who likely will be back next year. Kitwana Rhymer sat out his freshman year under NCAA minimum eligibility standards. But he is on track to complete his degree requirements this summer, which would earn him a fourth year of eligibility.
UMass coach Bruiser Flint said he'd miss this class.
"They're good kids I enjoyed coaching. They've improved in a lot of ways," Flint said. "I've had some great kids. I've been very fortunate in that way."
While most players pursue a professional career either stateside or overseas after college, Smith said when this season is over, so is his career.
"It's been a really good experience. I've really enjoyed myself. I learned a lot of stuff in basketball and in life in general. I'm happy to get my degree," Smith said pointing to his reconstructed right knee. "Reality just hit me. I can't take basketball further anymore. Basketball has brought a lot to me. I really appreciate what basketball has done for me. This is the final step."
MHERST - As he sat at the Mullins Center scorer's table during the University of Massachusetts men's basketball practice Thursday, senior guard Monty Mack was teasing manager Matthew Collier.
"Sign this," he said, handing Collier a copy of the scorecard that will be sold at Saturday's Senior Day game at noon against St. Bonaventure. The picture on the cover shows the team's five seniors - four players and Collier.
Collier, better known as "Klump", due to a resemblance to a character in the movie Nutty Professor, knew Mack was chiding him a bit, and tried to ignore the autograph request.
Mack gave him a playful slap across the face and tried to look stern as he pointed at him authoritatively.
"Klump, you better sign this," Mack said.
Collier signed his name on his picture. Mack smiled and gave Collier a one-arm hug before heading into the locker room.
The exchange wasn't unusual. Throughout his time at UMass, Collier has received the brunt of the players' and coaches' teasing. His good-natured personality and tendency to talk at length about some off-the-wall ideas have only increased the jokes.
Collier has been seeking a little attention throughout his stint as a manager. Now in his final days on the job, he's getting it, and everyone from UMass coach Bruiser Flint to trainer Ron Laham is taking the opportunity to needle him him about his new-found celebrity.
But given the soapbox of a radio and a newspaper interview Thursday, Collier passed up the chance to tell the world about his thoughts on basketball and how to get rich, and instead thanked Flint.
"He's been real loyal to me, even though I had some tough times with school and everything," Collier said. "He stuck with me and tried to help me as much as he could, even though he's a real busy man."
Collier's father died after his freshman year, and by his own admission it caused him to lose focus academically, so much so that he eventually had to leave school for a semester.
Home in Queens, he regularly watched the Minutemen on TV, aching to be back in Amherst and a part of things.
"I felt like I disappointed my family messing around," Collier said. "I really, really wanted to come back to be around the guys again. That's been the greatest thing for me."
While managers might seem very replaceable, Flint kept tabs on Collier when he was gone, calling him regularly. The kindness left an impression.
"When it comes down to it, when I was having a tough time they treated me great," Collier said.
"He's part of the family," Flint said. "He's been a great kid. He's very loyal. You don't mind taking care of kids like that."
When he returned to school, Collier made good on his vow to get his academic house in order, and in May he will leave UMass with a sports management degree.
In the absence of his own father, Collier has taken on Flint as a role model.
"Nobody could ever replace my father, because he was a great person and he did a great job raising me, but I look to Bruiser now to be the person who is going to take me from college forward," Collier said. "I look to him as a mentor. He's a perfect example of how to be a man. He's great with his family. He works hard at what he does. He's a good person and he treats people great. I never scored one point for him. He treats me like I scored 3,000."