MHERST - Steve Lappas admitted there will be jitters tonight.
As he approaches his first real game as head coach of the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team, the former Villanova coach expects the butterflies to visit his stomach before Arkansas Little Rock visits the Mullins Center at 7 p.m.
"You want to start off on the right foot," Lappas said. "There's always jitters in the first game of the year. There's jitters every game, but it's the first game here that's an important game for me."
Lappas has a pretty loose routine that he has always followed for game day.
"Usually the day of the game I don't really do anything. If I'm not ready by the day of the game, I'm never going to be ready," Lappas said. "I come into the office because I get too edgy sitting at home. I answer some letters, make phone calls. Then we have pregame meal. I go home and putt around for an hour.
"I used to eat pregame five hours before the game. Now I do it in four because it gives me less time to have to go home before the game starts," he added.
His jitters likely will be shared by some of his players as well, especially freshman point guard Kyle Wilson and sophomore wing forward Willie Jenkins.
Wilson becomes the first true freshman to start a game for the Minutemen since the 1996-97 season, when Winston Smith, Mike Babul and Ajmal Basit all spent time in the starting lineup.
"I've been waiting for this my whole life," Wilson said. "I wasn't expecting to start right away, but whatever the coach asks of me, I'll give 100 percent."
Wilson and Jenkins will be joined by senior Shannon Crooks at shooting guard and big men Kitwana Rhymer and Micah Brand underneath.
While that unit will start, Lappas reiterated his preference for using a three-guard lineup (Wilson, Crooks and Anthony Anderson) in a crucial spot.
"Right now if we're up eight with three minutes to go with people coming after us, that's as good a place to go as any," Lappas said. "Plus, we could go offense-defense too. On offense go with three guards and on defense put one of the bigger guys in."
The Lappas era begins against the Trojans, who after going 4-24 in 1999-2000, rebounded with an 18-11 campaign last year. Coach Porter Moser is hoping to use tonight's game to get some exposure for his team.
"To start off the year with a team with UMass' name is a great test for our guys," Moser said. "In the last 10 years UMass has been one of the most recognizable names in college basketball. To start the year with a game like this, we have a chance for exposure right out of the gate."
The Trojans who will take the court Friday only faintly resemble last year's 18-game winners. The top three scorers from that team all have graduated. This season's version has an inexperienced frontcourt, and a backcourt that doesn't have a clear-cut point guard.
"We lost a lot of scoring," Moser said. "We're still looking to see where some of our scoring is going to come from."
For the team to approach last year's success, its new players will have to emerge.
"They have a lot of new players. Some freshmen and some juco kids that are pretty good," Brand said. "Supposedly they have a couple of pretty good shooters. Everybody (on UMass' team) is concentrating on what they have to do with their defensive assignments."
Defense was something Lappas criticized in his team after its final exhibition. Brand said he expects the Minutemen to take appropriate steps.
"We watched the tape from both (exhibitions)," Brand said. "We corrected a lot of things we had to do."
Brand will be key to the UMass offense, which will try to capitalize on a height advantage it will enjoy against almost every opponent this year.
"Looking at the whole A-10 and at our non-conference (schedule), our frontcourt is a whole lot bigger and more athletic than a lot of the frontcourts we're going to face, and we have to take advantage of it," Brand said.
The Trojans do have some size. Starters Damion Ninkovic and Darius Eason are 6-foot-8 and 6-9, respectively. Last year's starting center, Jake Yancey, is 6-10, but he's sidelined with a toe injury. Even if he played, the three of them combined to average 8.6 rebounds per game - only slightly more than Rhymer (7.3 rpg) averaged by himself.
Lappas still warned that the Trojans will be no pushovers.
"They're a very disciplined team," Lappas said. "They're a very good halfcourt team, but they will run when they have it. They will press us full-court. They will play some 1-3-1 zone, which we've hardly played against."
Senior forward Jackie Rogers' thigh injury likely will keep him out of action tonight. Because he didn't play in either exhibition, Rogers still would be eligible to redshirt.
or the last 235 days, life in Amherst has been rather undemanding for Steve Lappas. Sure, there's that whole blending into a new setting process, the building relationships with his new players routine and the recruiting kids for next season procedure. But there's one thing he just hasn't been expected to do.
And that's win a basketball game that matters.
On March 26, 2001, Lappas was introduced by athletic director Bob Marcum as the 19th head coach of the Massachusetts men's basketball team. Since then, the only games his Minutemen have played were ones against Greek national teams and work-for-hire exhibition-only squads.
But the honeymoon is now over.
Tonight the Lappas era officially begins in the Valley as Arkansas-Little Rock comes to the Mullins Center for a 7 p.m. regular season opener.
"Twenty years ago I was married and I went on and had a great honeymoon, and when that honeymoon ended, boy, it was terrible, I felt so bad," said Lappas in jest Wednesday afternoon at the UMass weekly Sports Luncheon. "I think I'm going to feel a lot worse this Friday night when my honeymoon ends."
UMass won both of its Nov. 4 and Nov. 12 exhibition games by a combined score of 170-117, but the victories came against teams made up of former college players way past their time.
"I've been very, very happy with ours kids so far in the way they played in our two exhibition games," said Lappas, whose first game in the Mullins Center tonight will also be UMass' 100th in that building. "But you have to take into account in all exhibition games just how good the other team you played was. I don't think either team was very good - not really in good condition, not really guarding us that hard.
"It's going to be completely different Friday night. We're playing against a very well coached team."
Coach Porter Moser's Arkansas-Little Rock team also swept its exhibition slate, and enters 2001-02 looking to improve on its 18-11 record from last season, the 19th largest single-season turnaround in NCAA history. Two years ago, the Trojans went 4-24.
Last year, Little Rock won most of its games playing major time in the half court set, a style Lappas expects to see tonight. He said he has also prepared his team for the 1-3-1 defense which the Trojans, made up of only one senior, should throw on the table.
"We're certainly very concerned," said Lappas, whose schedule is ranked as the 17th-toughest by CollegeRPI.com. "They're a very good team. They play very well together and they play hard."
UMass will definitely look to run the ball on Little Rock and will most likely play man-to-man defense for the majority. With the ball, Lappas' motion offense will be in effect.
"With so many new, young players on the team, playing a game like this (against Massachusetts) on the road will be a huge test," said Moser in a released statement. "And UMass is a nationally-recognized program."
Freshman Kyle Wilson will start at point guard for the Minutemen and senior Shannon Crooks will join him the backcourt. Sophomore Willie Jenkins will get his first career start at small forward (a position that Lappas says is up for grabs), while junior Micah Brand and senior Kitwana Rhymer will fill out down low. Freshman Anthony Anderson will probably be the sixth man off the bench and will see a lot of time with Wilson and Crooks. Seniors Ronell Blizzard, Eric Williams and sophomore Raheim Lamb should also see some action.
Senior Jackie Rogers remains questionable with a hamstring problem, and there have been rumors that he might sit out this season as a medical redshirt.
"If it's going to be a nagging thing, then yeah, [we'll redshirt him]," said Lappas of his power forward. "I don't envision that right now, but I'm not going to rule it out."
f nothing else, UMass opens the men's basketball season tonight with the last decade on its side.
The Minutemen, who play Arkansas-Little Rock for the first time ever in the Mullins Center at 7 p.m., have won eight of their last nine season-openers.
Only the games that immediately followed have been a problem in recent years, but coach Steve Lappas is happy to kick off his new era at a more gradual, learning pace.
``We played well in two exhibition games, for the most part,'' he said yesterday. ``The good part is that it's not like we have to look at the whole team. At least we have some established parts, especially at the `5' and at the `2.'''
But with this stated strength at center and shooting guard, Lappas will introduce a new Mullins concept tonight - a motion scheme that should uncork a hearty flow of offense from the Minutemen for the first time in several years.
Lappas will also benefit from a more manageable schedule than the harrowing slate that produced a 2-9 start, and ultimately contributed to the downfall of Bruiser Flint last season.
Thus the insertion of home games against opponents such as Arkansas-Little Rock, Marist and Maine on this winter's nonconference chart. That said, Arkansas-Little Rock was one of the most improved teams in Division 1 last year, following up a horrendous 4-24 record in 1999-00 with a 2000-01 mark of 18-11.
But regardless of the schedule, Lappas needs significant time to refine his system, with a freshman point guard (Kyle Wilson) running the offense, and a first-year sophomore (Anthony Anderson) playing a large playmaking role off the bench. And the growing pains have just begun.
``It's just really at the tip right now,'' he said. ``We have two (first-year) guards who will definitely get better. We have a tremendous amount of room to grow.
``I'm very pleased with the way they have both played, though I know they shot 1-for-11 between them,'' Lappas said of the pair's shooting during Monday's 76-65 win over the EA Sports All-Stars, while also noting that Wilson and Anderson produced a combined seven assists and no turnovers in 52 minutes.
Senior Shannon Crooks, last year's point guard, has swung over to shooting guard and small forward, and enjoyed the best preseason on the team as a result. He followed up a seven-assist, no-turnover performance in the Minutemen's first exhibition win with 17 points on Monday night.
The power forward and center rotation will be a mirror of last season, with A-10 defensive player of the year Kitwana Rhymer and backup Eric Williams in the middle, flanked by starter Micah Brand and reserves Ronell Blizzard and, when healthy, the hamstrung Jackie Rogers.
Lappas' main question involves small forward, where Crooks has been the strongest candidate out of a three-guard set. Tonight's likely starter will be Willie Jenkins, following the sophomore's strong performance Monday.
``But we'll be playing some committee there, and also playing the three-guard (offense),'' said Lappas.
``That could be hard sometimes with Shannon guarding the bigger guy, but we'll work through that.''