MHERST -- Shannon Crooks' concern hit a peak in late April, after the UMass guard discovered that he had played the entire 2000-01 season with a broken left toe.
It never dawned on Crooks to have the injury checked out during the season, and two weeks after the conclusion of the Atlantic 10 tournament he underwent surgery.
Instead of worrying about his health, Crooks was focused on Steve Lappas rushing in from Villanova to replace Bruiser Flint as coach of the Minutemen. Lappas was about to become Crooks' third college coach in five years, following Flint and Fran Fraschilla, who coached the guard during his freshman year at St. John's before the Everett High product opted to transfer to UMass.
After struggling through three seasons miscast as a point guard, it occurred to Crooks that his senior season might develop into the most forgettable of all.
``It definitely crossed my mind that I might be pushed aside for someone else,'' said Crooks yesterday as the Minutemen (6-3) prepared for tomorrow's game at Marshall. ``But I wanted a fair chance at showing what I could do.''
A fair chance, as it turned out, is exactly what Lappas had in mind, albeit with a critical adjustment. By taking the ball and the offense out of Crooks' hands this winter, Lappas has helped create one of the feel-good stories early on in the A-10 season.
Crooks, now free to look for his own shot, has responded with the best overall play of his college career. Heading into the meeting with the Thundering Herd in Huntington, W. Va., Crooks is leading the Minutemen in scoring with a 14-point average, but it is the nature of those points that has flown in the face of past criticism of the guard's game.
Playing the point, Crooks was often caught debating whether to pass or shoot. He turned the ball over, made frantic decisions with the clock running down and forced shots.
Lappas has done something masterful in telling Crooks to focus on his own shot first, and has also asked him to be a team leader.
And this time around, Crooks seems to be comfortable within those parameters. He leads the team in minutes played, with an average if 35.6 per game. Though he is no longer the point guard of record, he's also tied with sophomore point guard Anthony Anderson for the team lead with 3.9 assists per game.
``I saw where some of that criticism came from before, but people had to understand the system that we were running, and what I was being asked to do,'' said Crooks. ``Nothing against the old system, but we ran a standard offense where I wasn't capable of doing things the way I know I can. So coach Lappas put me off the ball, and that has worked out real well. Before, I didn't know when to shoot, where to shoot, and I seemed to always get caught in between.''
There's no such thing as in between now. Lappas, when talking about his backcourt, often refers to Crooks as ``my only experienced perimeter player.''
That's not a stretch. Both point guards - Anderson and freshman backup Kyle Wilson - are first-year players. The inexperience doesn't end with the backcourt.
Lappas has conducted an ongoing tryout at small forward - the slot he initially thought would be filled by Crooks in the event he had to rely on a three-guard set.
Instead, sophomores Raheim Lamb, Jameel Pugh and Willie Jenkins - the former in his first season and the latter two, for all intents and purposes, in the same boat - have taken turns impressing the coach in the so-called ``3'' spot. That position will be taxed dearly tomorrow, too. Marshall swingman Tamar Slay is considered one of the top guard candidates in the country to make the jump to the NBA.
And though Lappas has decided to cover Slay with one of his young small forwards, Crooks was busy lobbying for the duty. Making the move would make sense, considering that despite the fact UMass center Kitwana Rhymer was named the A-10's defensive player of the year last season, there may not be a better man-to-man defender in the conference than Crooks.
That much, regardless of how well he has played at the other end of the floor, has always been a given Crooks commodity.
``I'm saying something to coach today about that,'' said Crooks. ``I'm definitely going to see (Slay) at some point . . .''
If Crooks has it his way, the 6-foot-7 Slay will experience something notable as well - namely, a 6-2 senior enjoying his best college season.
``I would say that it's been my best,'' said Crooks. ``My first year (at UMass) I played pretty well, and then a couple of things went wrong for me my second year that I won't use as an excuse, but I feel healthy now, and I can showcase my skills a bit.
``There's more to come, too. (Lappas) wants me to end on a good note here. I can lead this team from the 2-guard, too.''
UNTINGTON, W. Va. - You want frustration?
Take a small commuter jet, 12 rows deep, each with one seat on the left and two on the right, and use it to fly a college basketball team from Pittsburgh to Huntington, W. Va.
And then assign 6-foot-10, 256-pound Kitwana Rhymer and 6-11, 243-pound Micah Brand to sit side-by-side in the same emergency exit row.
The resulting squirm for space isn't unlike what has happened to this hulking pair on the floor during UMass' 6-3 start.
The Minutemen's perimeter game has been so uneven and unpredictable, the big guys have rarely had sufficient room to operate, even with Brand often swinging out to the high post.
Opponents have generally guarded the Minutemen via zone coverage, doubled down on Brand and Rhymer, and dared the guards and small forwards to shoot.
Roughly 30 minutes after watching his players bump up to 6-3 with a sweet-and-sour offensive performance against Maine on Dec. 23, Steve Lappas braced his new adoring public for the gruesome truth.
The Minutemen, though moving through a new motion offense, can be as slow and unproductive with the ball as they ever were.
And they'll be forced to slug their way through another tractor pull today, against a 6-4 Marshall team that has been picked by many to win the Mid-American Conference title.
``Get used to it - this is the way we'll be,'' Lappas said after the win over Maine.
UMass' saving grace, as always in the post-Marcus Camby era, is its defense.
And that, too, will be sorely tested today by three of the best players in the MAC. Tamar Slay is a 6-7 swingman with realistic NBA ambitions. Center J.R. VanHoose, a former Mr. Basketball in Kentucky who was not deemed worthy of a Wildcats scholarship by Rick Pitino, has given the Minutemen fits in the past with his well-rounded inside game. And Ronald Blackshear, a transfer swingman from Temple, has cracked the starting lineup.
The Minutemen, with their Atlantic 10 opener scheduled for next Saturday against St. Joseph's in the Mullins Center, need a solid perimeter tuneup. Marshall, which leads the series, 2-1, has won its last two games against UMass, including an 88-66 wallop of the Lari Ketner-led Minutemen three years ago in Huntington.
UNTINGTON - While Marshall wrapped up its final exams before the holidays, the basketball team will face a test on the court tonight when Massachusetts visits Cam Henderson Center.
UMass, 6-3 and holding down the No. 12 spot in the Ratings Percentage Index, represents the top nonconference opponent on Marshall's home schedule this season. The Minutemen and Herd will tip off at 7:30 p.m.
"They play very good basketball. They're a good strong physical team and we'll have our hands full. Hopefully, we'll be competitive," said Marshall coach Greg White. "We'll try to use this game as a measuring stick and as an opportunity to get better. Any time you play a nationally known program, you want to be at your best."
At least Marshall will enter tonight's test with a sharpened No. 2 pencil. Sophomore guard Ronald Blackshear, a transfer from Temple, became eligible for last Saturday's Western Michigan game. He scored six points at shooting guard and allowed White to move freshman Ronny Dawn from shooting guard to point guard.
The 6-foot-3 Dawn came up big, scoring 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting (.583 percent) from the floor in leading the Thundering Herd to a 77-73 win at WMU. Dawn connected on 4-of-7 from 3-point range, an effort that helped Dawn earn Mid-American Conference East Division player of the week honors.
Dawn looks like he may be the answer for Marshall's biggest question mark this season: point guard. Against Western Michigan, Dawn handed out five assists and was charged with just one turnover in 38 minutes. Dawn's efforts came on the heels of a Herd loss against Auburn in which starting point guard Enoch Bunch committed nine turnovers.
"Ronny played well the last game out but only time will tell. We needed someone to be stable with the ball and Ronny provided that," White said. "I don't want to take away from what the other guys have done - we did win five games with them at point - but Ronny has proven he can play."
With Blackshear, who played a half season with Temple last year and practiced the second half of last season with Marshall, the Herd picks up experience. Dawn had been playing shooting guard with newcomers Bunch and Richard Wilson picking up most of the minutes at point.
"Any time you have a freshman throwing the ball to a freshman, the likelihood of a mistake is increased. Experience is huge in college basketball," White said. "Ronald Blackshear is an experienced player practiced who has practiced with us for a year. It's going to get better and better as the year goes on."
UMass already has registered some impressive wins. The Minutemen won at home against Oregon and won at North Carolina State. UMass lost by just 80-78 at Big East favorite Boston College. Oregon has gone on to defeat Louisville and blow out Arizona 105-75, and NC State has a win against Syracuse.
The Minutemen (6-3) have won two consecutive games, topping Central Connecticut and Maine. UMass, under new head coach Steve Lappas, is led by Shannon Crooks, who averages 14 points.
"I'm very pleased with our record. I'd love to be playing better, but if you told me before the season that we'd be 6-3 with our schedule, I'd have been very happy," Lappas said. "We're not in tremendous shape, but we're in very good shape."
Marshall (6-4) will be looking to run its all-time record against the Minutemen to 3-1. The Herd has won the last two meetings, downing UMass 88-66 in Huntington during the 1998-99 season and 65-55 in Amherst during the 1999-00 season.
BRIEFLY: Marshall junior forward William Butler has completed his NCAA suspension and will be available for the remainder of the season. Junior guard Monty Wright still needs to sit out two more games. ... Marshall is one of several schools still awaiting an NCAA decision on the eligibility of a group of foreign basketball players, including Herd sophomore center Ardo Armpalu, who has not played a game this season. ... Any child in the eighth grade or below that wears a youth league jersey from any sport will be admitted to tonight's game for $1 with a paying adult. There is a limit of one child per adult. ... Tonight's game is the final nonconference home game for Marshall. The only remaining nonconference game for the Herd is the Jan. 23 game against West Virginia in Charleston. ... After tonight's game, the Herd will play Jan. 5 at home against defending MAC East champion Kent State. Marshall has started its MAC season 2-0.
he Thundering Herd (6-4) seem to be headed in the right direction going into tonight's non-conference clash with UMass. They're coming off a 77-73 win over Western Michigan last Saturday, in which some of the team's questions might have been answered.
The game marked the debut of guard Ronald Blackshear, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound sophomore. The Camilla, Ga., native transferred from Temple last year and was forced to sit out one full year as per NCAA rules.
Blackshear buried a couple of three-pointers for his only points of the night, but he also opened up a few possibilities for coach Greg White.
Blackshear's presence allowed White to move freshman Ronny Dawn to point guard, and Dawn responded. The 6-3, 185-pound Ft. Thomas, Ky., native led Marshall with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting. He was 4-of-7 from three-point territory, and also dished out five assists to just one turnover.
Against the Broncos - who had previously knocked off the likes of Michigan and Virginia Tech - Marshall shot a blistering 53 percent (24-of-45) from the floor. That's a far cry from where the Herd was at the start of the season.
In a 69-64 loss to George Washington in the NABC Classic in Lexington, Ky., the Herd led 53-35 at halftime. They promptly turned around and shot 2-for-23 in the second half to let the victory slip away.
That was the start of a three-game losing streak to begin the season, including a 90-73 loss to Kentucky in the NABC consolation game and a 77-72 defeat at the hands of Troy State in Huntington.
The Herd righted the ship by taking out their frustrations on outmanned Shepherd College in a 96-46 win. Since then, Marshall is 6-1, its only loss a 78-60 setback to Auburn in the Coors Classic Invitational in Mobile, Ala.
In all six of its wins, Marshall has shot 50 percent or higher from the floor. In each of the four losses, the percentage has been under 40 percent.
UMass (6-3) is in a similar situation. The Minutemen have outshot their opponents in all six of their wins. In those victories, they have shot 47.7 percent from the floor.
The Minutemen ride a two-game winning streak into the Henderson Center. They are led by 6-2, 222-pound senior guard Shannon Crooks, who averages 14 points per game. Junior forward Micah Brand (6-11, 243) averages 12.2 points and senior center Kitwana Rhymer (6-10, 256) checks in at 11 points and seven rebounds per game.
Marshall is led by Beckley native Tamar Slay. The 6-9, 205-pound senior forward is third in the Mid-American Conference in scoring at 20.5 points per game.
Behind Slay is 6-10, 255-pound senior center J.R. VanHoose at 17.7 points and a MAC-leading 12 rebounds per game. Senior forward Latece Williams (6-9, 245) contributes 12.6 points and 8.5 rebounds. With his 21-point effort against Western Michigan, Dawn pushed his scoring average to 10.3 ppg.
wo years ago, Kitwana Rhymer and Shannon Crooks were good for a combined 18 points in 58 minutes in a loss to Marshall University.
The Massachusetts seniors, a 6-foot-10, 256-pound center and 6-2, 222-pound guard, respectively, got little help from 6-11 Micah Brand. The then-freshman scored no points, grabbed one rebound but committed three personal fouls and turned the basketball over twice in seven minutes in a 65-55 Thundering Herd victory at the Henderson Center in Huntington.
Brand has since become a major factor for the Minutemen.
The 243-pound junior is averaging 12.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, to complement Crooks' 14.0 ppg and Rhymer's 11.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per outing.
Brand shared the Atlantic 10's Chris Daniels Most Improved Player Award with Rhymer last season. He has 21 double-figure scoring outings in his career, and against Maine last Saturday, scored all of his 17 points in the second half, leading UMass to a 78-60 come-from-behind win. He led five teammates in double- figure scoring.
He also grabbed seven rebounds, made four steals and blocked three shots in just 25 minutes.
"He is an outstanding player," said Marshall assistant coach Jeff Burkhammer, who prepared the Thundering Herd's scouting report on UMass. "He can run and jump. He scores inside but he can turn around and hit the 15- to 18-footer. He's a good rebounder and good shot blocker. He's really come into his own as an athlete."
As Burkhammer pointed out, the 6-3 Minutemen are just dangerous in general.
"Crooks is a strong athlete. He's good off the dribble, he takes it to the rim and creates offense," Burkhammer said. "Rhymer is a big athlete. He was the Atlantic 10's Defensive Player of the Year and leads the league in blocked shots (2.89).
"They've got a great 4-5 combo inside. (Anthony) Anderson, their point guard, is quick. They'll push it. Their big men run as well as their guards. They'll run off misses more than made baskets."
The Herd, 6-4, look to extend its 2-1 series lead over the Minutemen at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Henderson Center in Huntington.
The key to the game, according to Burkhammer, will be the Herd's defensive rebounding.
"We're going to have to have five players rebounding the ball," he said. "That's something we've had a problem with our last few games. At Western Michigan we gave up 19 offensive boards.
"And J.R. (VanHoose) and Latece (Williams) are going to have to run the floor and help out."
Coach Greg White called it a numbers game.
"They're looking to score in the 60s, we're looking to score in the 80s," White said. "If they are able to control the tempo, there won't be that many shots. Then they can't get second shots. If they're running up and down the court, it's not that big of deal.
"But when I think of UMass I think talent. They're a big, strong, powerful team. Coach (Steve) Lappas is a nationally known coach. He's doing a good job."
The Herd is in the first game of its second two-for-one with UMass, with return dates to Amherst, Mass., scheduled for the next two years.
"That was the way it was originally planned," White said. "Four years ago we were fortunate to get them and that was because of (UMass Athletic Director) Bob Marcum. He's a Marshall graduate and a good friend."