MHERST — The University of Massachusetts men's basketball team is ready to get real.
Granted, the California Midwest All-Stars are not Temple, and more of its players are from the Midwest than from California. But wherever they're from, tonight's 7 o'clock preseason game at the Mullins Center will provide the first real outside competition for a UMass team that's been restricted to intrasquad scrimmages and drills so far.
The All-Stars are another of those gypsy teams of ex-collegians who surface each November for two reasons — to provide preseason competition for college clubs, and to showcase their own players for possible professional opportunities.
The All-Stars' roster features several former Big Ten players, including past Purdue stars Chad Austin and Greg McQuay. Most have been out of college for only a year or two, so it should be a good test for a UMass team that has already been testing itself with rigorous practices for three weeks.
"There's been a whole lot more banging at practice this year," senior center Kitwana Rhymer said. "I feel good about this team."
Rhymer could qualify as the house optimist, and he concedes he felt good about last year's team in preseason, too. He wasn't really wrong, but the Minutemen expect more from this season than the 17-16 finish and first-round NIT exit of last season.
"I feel even better about us now," Rhymer said. "We have more size and depth at every position."
UMass coach Bruiser Flint will use tonight's game to explore possible combinations and review new players.
"I want to see how my freshmen are doing, and I'm thinking about doing some mass substitution, four or five guys at a time," Flint said. "I don't know if I'd do that in a real game, although we might sub in three guys at once. But we can use this game to see how different combinations work out."
Last year, UMass used preseason play to practice against zone defense, something the Minutemen see frequently during the season. Touring teams generally don't play zone, unless the college team requests it.
Flint will not request it of the California Midwest All-Stars tonight, though he's considering it against Statmaster.com, which plays UMass Nov. 10.
Four new players will make their UMass debuts tonight — juniors Jackie Rogers and Eric Williams, and freshmen Willie Jenkins and Jameel Pugh.
Rogers, who will start tonight, and Williams are 6-foot-8 power forwards who will rotate with 6-11 Rhymer and 6-11 sophomore Micah Brand in the low post. Rogers is a junior-college transfer who began his college career at West Virginia, and Williams sat out last season after transferring from Syracuse.
Collectively, the tall foursome hopes to reverse last year's rebounding falloff. UMass was 7-14 in games in which it was outrebounded, and wound up with 87 fewer total boards than its opponents.
As for the freshman, Pugh is a 6-5 guard who has won 16 straight dunking competitions, but now must prove his eye-popping athleticism can apply to game situations. Jenkins, a 6-6 native of Memphis, Tenn., has made an immediate impact in practice.
With shooting guard Monty Mack sidelined by a suspension for both preseason games and the Nov. 18 opener against Iona, the newcomers figure to receive an even greater share of the early spotlight. Their quick development appears crucial for a team that faces Marquette, Oregon, Ohio State, Connecticut and North Carolina before New Year's Day.
MHERST - They come from places like Purdue, Milwaukee and New Mexico, with names like Willie, Courtney and Enoch, storming barns from Chicago to Raleigh. Theirs is a true American story, 10 men chasing their basketball dreams.
OK, exhibition basketball isn't that glamorous or poetic, but it is beginning tonight and for the University of Massachusetts players and coaches, it sure beats practice.
"I think we need a game because practice is getting stale," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said.
The Minutemen host the California All-Stars' midwestern team at 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center.
The All-Star squad features a pair of former Boilermakers - Chad Austin and Greg McQuay, as well as Courtney James (Minnesota), Willie Coleman (DePaul) and Charlie Miller (Indiana) among the players from big-name programs. Like all barnstorming teams, the players hope to land tryouts overseas or in the stateside minor leagues.
With UMass' Monty Mack serving the first game of his one-game suspension stemming from his shop-lifting incident, Jonathan DePina will start at point guard, with Shannon Crooks moving over to start at shooting guard.
The frontcourt will feature seniors Kitwana Rhymer at center and Winston Smith at small forward. Jackie Rogers, the 6-foot-8 junior college transfer from Barton County (Kan.) Community College, will start at power forward.
Rogers is one of five players wearing a UMass uniform for the first time. Freshmen swingmen Willie Jenkins, Jameel Pugh and Syracuse transfer Eric Williams, as well as walk-on Dale Menendez, will join Rogers in making their Mullins debut.
Williams, who had to sit out last year due to NCAA transfer regulations, was excited to play in a game, even one that doesn't count in the standings.
"I'm looking forward to showing people that I can play at a high level of Division I basketball," Williams said. "I'm just going to try my hardest and work on my game and to try to get our team better."
He has a goal.
"For me to make the team better, I've got to get 10 boards," Williams said. "That's my overall goal."
Williams said the team has improved since practice started.
"The team has become much better," Williams said. "Guys are starting to perform and jell."
Flint wants to use the first exhibition game to try some combinations and work on some things.
"There'll be, like, mass substitutions to try some combinations," Flint said. "I'm not going to sub like it was a real game. I want to see how certain guys act in game situations. A lot of it is the freshmen and what they do and how they react in games. I want to see who can guard individually."
Flint said he'll approach next Friday's exhibition game against Statmaster.com differently.
"In that game we'll have more things in place so we'll play it more like a real game," he said.
The regular season begins Nov. 18 when Iona comes to Amherst.