AMHERST -- Practice has been under way at the Mullins Center for nearly a month, and it's almost time for the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team to begin answering some key questions.
There's really no way to judge during three-hour practices, but when the Minutemen take the floor in an exhibition game Thursday night, the top question to be answered concerns the team's outside shooting.
"That's the biggest question mark on the team; our perimeter people have to be more consistent," said UMass head coach Bruiser Flint.
The Minutemen open the 1998-99 season on Thursday, when the Converse All-Stars visit the Mullins Center. Six days later, UMass will play another game against the Marathon Oil traveling squad. Both teams are made up of former college and pro players. Last year, the Minutemen split those two exhibition contests.
UMass opens play for real on Nov. 16, when the Minutemen host Niagara University in the first round of the preseason Chase NIT Tournament.
"Outside shooting is definitely important. It definitely hurt us last year, because we weren't a consistent outside shooting team," said UMass small forward Mike Babul. "Hopefully, if we can show early in the year that we can knock down some shots, teams will respect our outside game."
Last year, UMass shot 44.7 percent from the field and a dismal 33.9 percent (111-of-327) from the three-point range. The only shooters to hit in the 50-percent neighborhood last year were center Lari Ketner and forwards Tyrone Weeks and Ajmal Basit. Those numbers are good, but none of those three players shoot from beyond 10 feet from the basket.
Long-range shooters include Charlton Clarke (40 percent), Monty Mack (39.9 percent), Jonathan DePina (39.6 percent) and Babul (43 percent).
" we hit shots, but most of them were tough, situational shots," Clarke explained. "Now if we're wide open we have to can them. If double-team in the post, we have to make them pay."
"We all worked on our outside shooting this summer," added Babul. "Not that we get a ton of shots -- but the ones we get, we want to knock them down."
The UMass perimeter players are confident that with the additional size element in the front court, they'll get more shots. Ketner is 6-foot-11, while Basit is 6-9. Throw into the mix newcomers Ronell Blizzard (6-8), Anthony Oates (6-10) and Kitwana Rhymer (6-10), and UMass opponents are going to be spending a lot of time trying to defend against the Minuteman power game.
"There's going to be a lot of double-teaming in the post," Clarke said. "So we should have some wide-open shots. All we have to do is stick them."
Last year the Minutemen had to work very hard to get open shots and break down the double teams against Ketner. The inconsistent shooting also hampered Flint in his efforts to establish a solid player rotation.
"Does that mean they have to score more baskets?" Flint asked rhetorically. "No. I have to know what I'm getting from them. Then I know who to play and when.
"It takes a load off of what people will do to Larry and Ajmal. Ajmal is a better shooter, a better interior scorer than Tyrone. But if you have four guys around you, there's nothing you can do," the coach added.