he start of the UMass basketball season is not intended to gently guide the Minutemen into rougher waters.
Not with road games against Marquette (Monday), Oregon (Dec. 2), Ohio State (Dec. 10), No. 13 UConn (Dec. 12) and No. 7 North Carolina (Dec. 29) packing the lane. The same applies to tonight's home opener against Iona, an NCAA tournament team last March.
That's when speculation over the impact of coach Bruiser Flint's most hyped recruiting class gets its first true answer.
``I wish I had Monty (Mack) for this one - then I'd be a lot more excited,'' Flint said of his offensive leader, who will complete his three-game suspension by sitting out tonight.
Not that the Minutemen would have had a choice, as it turned out. Mack sprained his right ankle last week during practice and needs the extra time to heal for Marquette on Monday night. Backup center Eric Williams, who rolled his foot during an exhibition game last week, is listed as probable tonight.
But above all, Flint will get an early look at how his team responds, in a real game, without its best player.
``The younger guys have definitely gotten a feel for what they can do as a result of this,'' Flint said. ``The backcourt is thin right now because of Monty. Willie (Jenkins) is a freshman, and you don't know how he's going to react until he steps on the floor. But we're going to start with Jonathan (DePina) and Shannon (Crooks) in the backcourt for this one. The biggest thing, so far, is that we have more guys to put in when the situation calls for it.''
MHERST — Five weeks have passed since practice opened, and nothing has occurred to diminish the optimism felt by the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team.
Of course, almost everyone is optimistic before the season begins, and the first test comes tonight, when the redesigned Minutemen open against Iona at the Mullins Center. They're anxious to get going, and maybe that's a good sign.
"It's time to play now," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said on the eve of his fifth opener. "We've gotten better (in preseason practice), but without our best player, it will still be tough."
That would be senior guard Monty Mack, who will complete a suspension for an October shoplifting incident by sitting out tonight. He'll be in uniform Monday, when UMass plays Marquette in Milwaukee.
Not everyone gives the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference enough credit, but Iona is not to be taken lightly. The Gaels reached the NCAA tournament last year with an 84-80 MAAC title-game win over Siena, which then knocked UMass out of the NIT.
The Minutemen finished 17-16, including an 85-77 opening-night win at Iona. The Gaels, who finished 20-11 after a 6-9 start, return two starters in 6-foot-5 junior forward Dyree Wilson and 6-7 senior guard Phil Grant.
Also back is 6-10 senior center Nakiea Miller, who started only four games but averaged 22 minutes and blocked 98 shots, an Iona record.
Earl Johnson, a 6-foot senior guard who sat out last season after transferring from Rutgers, is also available to help make up for the loss of Tariq Kirksay, who averaged 19.8 points per game, as a senior last year.
It's been an encouraging off-season for UMass, which signed three promising high school seniors (guards Eddie Basden and Jeremiah King, and forward Mauricio Branwell) and welcomed an exciting quartet of new players for this season.
For all the excitement generated by the newcomers, though, the starting lineup features familiar faces in small forward Winston Smith, center Kitwana Rhymer and guards Shannon Crooks and Jonathan DePina.
The other starter will be power forward Jackie Rogers, a junior college transfer who has looked solid in preseason.
The only injured player is forward Eric Williams, who bruised an ankle in last week's preseason game against Statmaster.com. The 6-8 Syracuse transfer will still make his UMass debut against Iona, but Flint said his mobility remains to be seen.
Another player to watch might be 6-11 Micah Brand, whose potential has become both a source of promise and a burden.
"I don't want him to think he has to live up to his press clippings," said Flint, who is hoping for a moratorium on the comparisons between Brand and former UMass star Marcus Camby. "I think he was feeling that type of pressure, but we've talked about it.
Brand struggled in the preseason, an indication the sophomore center was pressing.
"He's been great in practice, though," Flint said. "I just told Micah that if he were ready to be the main man, he'd be starting."
Rather than rely too quickly on promising freshmen Willie Jenkins and Jameel Pugh, Flint is going with DePina and Smith in the starting lineup, though DePina figures to come off the bench when Mack comes back.
For Smith, the start brings the 6-5 senior full circle. In 1996, he was a freshman starter in Flint's first game as coach.
"Jonathan played pretty well in the last preseason game, too," Flint said. "Generally, the older players did so, while the young guys took a step back after a good first game. But at this point in their careers, that's almost to be expected."
ovember 18, 2000, 7:00 p.m.
Head Coach: Jeff Ruland (Iona '91), 3rd season
1999-2000 Record: 20-11 (13-5 in MAAC)
Returning players: Sr. Nakiea Miller (F-C), Sr. Leland Matthews (G-F), Sr. Phil Grant (G), Jr. Dyree Wilson (F), Jr. Leland Norris (G), So. Maceo Wofford (G)
New faces: Sr. Earl Johnson (G) (Rutgers University), So. Kenya Carruthers (G-F) (LA City College), Fr. Drago Pavlovic (F), Fr. Charles Henson (F), Fr. Greg Jenkins (F-C)
Last time UMass met Iona: November 20, 1999, at Iona--UMass won, 85-77
Previous meeting: January 5, 1999, at UMass--Iona won 77-58
All-time: UMass has one 7 of 11 meetings with Iona
Iona is a member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Last season, the Gaels finished 2nd in the conference in the regular season behind Siena, but they beat Siena to win the postseason tournament and secure an NCAA tournament bid, where they lost 74-59 in the first round to Maryland.
Iona lost MAAC player of the year Tariq Kirksay, but the Gaels return senior center/forward Nakiea Miller and junior forward Dyree Wilson, both 3rd team All-MAAC selections last year. Miller started just 3 games last season, but he averaged 13.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, and he was 2nd in the MAAC in blocks, averaging 3.2 per game. Wilson was the Gaels' 2nd leading scorer last year, averaging 19.2 points per game and contributing 59 assists. Senior guard Phil Grant started every game last season, averaging 10.6 points per game and dishing out 92 assists.
The Gaels are ranked first in the MAAC preseason coaches poll, edging out Niagara. They won both their exhibition games, opening with a 92-82 victory over the Converse All-Stars and downing the New York Ravens 100-92 in their final exhibition tuneup. Iona is No. 135 in the preseason Sagarin power ratings. UMass comes in at No. 61.
In last year's meeting, Monty Mack scored 21 points to lead UMass to an 85-77 victory. UMass trailed 43-38 at the half, but held the Gaels to 36% shooting in the 2nd half. Phil Grant had 14 points in the loss, and Dyree Wilson added 13. For the Minutemen, Kitwana Rhymer scored 12 points, and Shannon Crooks and Jonathan DePina each scored 11.
he question on everybody's mind is this: Can the Massachusetts men's basketball team win without its most consistent scorer and Atlantic 10 Player of the Year candidate, Monty Mack?
Well, the short answer is this: It definitely won't be easy, and the Minutemen will need someone to step up and replace the 20 points a game that Mack would be sure to provide if they are going to get the season off on the right foot with a win against the Iona Gaels at 7:00 p.m. at the William D. Mullins Center.
"I'd rather that he be out there," said UMass Head Coach Bruiser Flint. "But it would be a boost to our confidence if we win. One of the most important games of the Final Four year (1996) was the game against USC because we won without Marcus (Camby)."
The most likely player to fill the suspended Mack's role will be junior Shannon Crooks, who last year averaged 11.6 points a game. Against Iona, he will play shooting guard instead of his customary point guard position, while Jonathan DePina will start in his place at the one.
Considering that no other player for the Maroon and White averaged over eight points a game last year, the pressure will be on Crooks to carry the main load of the UMass offense. One thing is for sure - he will get his chance to bomb away.
"If you are a two guard in our system then you are going to be very happy," said Flint. "You will get a lot of shots."
One area where the Minutemen look to be significantly deeper than last year is at the forward position, where newcomers Jackie Rogers, Eric Williams, Willie Jenkins and Jameel Pugh will all most likely see a considerable amount of playing time. Combined with centers Kitwana Rhymer and Micah Brand, UMass should be able to pound the ball inside more effectively than last year's club, although the loss of Chris Kirkland to graduation, last year's second leading scorer, will hurt the offensive firepower of the Maroon and White.
In the preseason, Rogers shined, scoring 18 points against Statmaster.com, and impressed the crowd with his hustle and willingness to dive all over the floor.
"Jackie Rogers just plays hard," said Flint. "He dives, plus he tends to rebound the ball and people usually appreciate that."
The Gaels, in contrast to the Minutemen, are attempting to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament, but it won't be easy without their leading scorer from a year ago, Tariq Kirksay. In last season's opening game contest between the two teams, Kirksay was able to drop 20 points on Massachusetts, but the Maroon and White were still able to pull out the 85-77 win.
Even without Kirksay, however, Iona does return a large portion of the offense, and has three players that scored in double digits during the 1999-00 season. Dyree Wilson should lead the offense, with a 14.6 ppg average coming back from last year, while 6-foot-7 guard Phil Grant and his 10.6 points per game should solidify the guard position and provide match up problems for the Minutemen.
Center Nakiea Miller was also a solid contributor last year, scoring 13.8 points a game, despite only starting in four of 30 contests.
"It will be a challenging first game," said Flint. "If we go out there, play our game and rebound the basketball than we have a good chance of winning."
However, Flint also warned against giving up on the season if UMass happened to lose a few games at the beginning of the year. "There are a lot of games," he said. "I don't want people to be panicking if we lose a couple of them. It's a long season."
he Gaels open the 2000-01 season with hopes of another MAAC title, but they also want to perform better in non-conference play. And they'll get their chance on Saturday at 7 p.m. in their season-opener at UMass, which has NCAA plans of their own.
Last season was huge for the two coaches of Saturday's contest between Iona and UMass. Iona's Jeff Ruland and UMass' Bruiser Flint each needed to prove they can win at their respective programs.
One coach did.
Ruland's team endured a 6-9 start, but eventually found themselves and went on to another 20-win season, a MAAC title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, Flint's Minutemen struggled to a 17-16 record and a first-round loss at Siena in the NIT. Clearly he's still trying to prove he can chase away the ghost of former coach John Calipari, who took the team to the Final Four just a few years ago.
Despite these differences, this is still a statement game for both teams. Iona, despite MAAC success, needs to demonstrate an ability to get it done in non-conference play, where they are just 8-12 the past two seasons. Last year's 85-77 loss to UMass in New Rochelle was due to a late-game collapse, as Iona earlier enjoyed a 9-point second half lead.
"They beat us in our house last year, but we missed eight straight free throws," Ruland said. "If we make our free throws, it's a lot different game."
Alas, the past is the past, and it's time for Iona to try to win the rubber game of this three-game series with UMass up at the Mullins Center. And make no mistake, the Gaels are plenty confident they'll return from Amherst with a win.
"We expect another great game with them," senior guard Phil Grant said. "We've got a bunch of young guys that might be a little nervous, but we expect another great game and to come out with a victory."
Ruland concurs: "I think we have more than a legit shot at winning at UMass."
That's saying a lot when you consider what UMass brings to the table. But what might be more important is what they WON'T be bringing--A-10 Player of the Year candidate Monty Mack. The fifth-year senior, who averaged 19.8 points per game last year, is suspended for the contest due to a shoplifting incident.
Even without Mack, UMass has plenty of weapons. Junior guard Shannon Crooks (11.6 ppg, 3.0 apg) will fill the void on the perimeter, and senior Jonathan DePina (3.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg) will start in Mack's place.
Iona will be bigger than most MAAC foes in the frontcourt, but this won't be the case against the Minutemen. UMass has several big bodies they can throw at you: 6-10 senior Kitwana Rhymer (7.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg), 6-11 sophomore Micah Brand (4.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg), 6-8 junior Syracuse transfer Eric Williams, and 6-8 junior college transfer Jackie Rogers, who has been impressive in exhibition play.
While Iona may have some trouble matching up with the Minutemen down low, the Gaels' roster presents plenty of match-up problems for UMass to consider as well.
"We're very long and very athletic," Ruland said. "We only have three guys on the team that are under 6-5.
"When you play us, you're going to have to pick the guys you want to stop. You want to stop Nakiea (Miller)? You want to stop Earl (Johnson)? Dyree (Wilson)? Do you want to stop us posting up Phil Grant at the two at 6-8? Do you want to stop us posting up Courtney (Fields) at the point at 6-9? It's a nice problem for us to have."
Lucky 7 Keys to the Game
With UMass in the role of favorite, here are seven things the Gaels need to try to do to improve their chances of winning:
-- Keep Miller on the floor. Miller is Iona's primary inside scoring threat, and his shot-blocking ability is what makes the defense work. Plus, he's the only proven rebounder on the roster. Iona needs Miller to avoid silly fouls and to play at least 30 minutes.
-- Hit the glass. For much of last season, if the Gaels outrebounded their opponent, they'd win. Last year, the Minutemen outrebounded Iona 42-33; you know the result. The Gaels--led by Miller--will have to limit the UMass offense to one-and-done trips, which will also enable them to...
-- Get out and run. UMass is a big team, so Iona doesn't want them setting up their halfcourt defense. The Gaels need to get down the floor before guys like Rhymer establish positions in the paint, so they can attack the basket and not have to rely on the perimeter game. And speaking of Rhymer...
-- Get Rhymer in foul trouble. Iona did this last year, which helped greatly. Rhymer fouled out in only seven minutes of play, but still managed a ridiculous 12 points and 11 rebounds. He'll probably guard Miller; expect Iona to try to establish Miller early to try to send Rhymer to the bench.
-- It's only charity. The Gaels should be an exceptional free throw shooting team this season. They should take advantage of the tight early-season officiating we've seen thus far, and go to the basket early and often. If they play their cards right, the Gaels should be in the bonus midway through both halves.
-- Use backcourt height advantage. Grant (and Fields, when he's in) is considerably taller than the two guys most likely to guard him--Crooks (6-2) and DePina (5-9). Grant has proven he can post up well; expect Iona to use this tactic, particularly if UMass is focusing on bottling up Miller down low.
-- Defense first. Running and attacking might be the plan, but if Iona doesn't defend, they won't win. Ruland's ideal scenario is to hold opponents to less than 40% from the field while the Gaels put up 90 points, but in this one, forget the 90. The Gaels need to contest every shot, then box out as a five-man unit.
A pre-game reception will be held at the UMass Campus Center (10th floor, Room 1009) at 5:30 p.m. The reception is free (cash bar), and no RSVP is necessary. Parking is available in the garage adjacent to the Campus Center.