AMHERST - Back on Oct. 12, Morehead State and Cal-Poly could boldly say that they were in no worse shape for making the NCAA Tournament than Kansas or Duke. In fact, any Division 1 team could make such a statement, for on Oct. 12 the college basketball season had not begun.
Yet it's highly unlikely that on Oct. 12 - three days before the first official practice - players from those programs were being asked if their team would advance past the tournament's first round. That was the case at University of Massachusetts Media Day.
Every year, it seems, one question about this program rises above all others. Three seasons ago, it was whether the Minutemen could make it to the Final Four. Two seasons ago, the question was, could they maintain their winning ways despite the departure of Player of the Year Marcus Camby and coach John Calipari? Last season it was, could they rekindle their success in the NCAA tournament?
This season: Ibid, though more pronounced than last year.
The players seem eager to answer the query. ''A few of us had conversations and we said we had the Atlantic 10 last year and let it slip from us and we lost twice in the [first round of the] NCAA tournament, and we don't want that to happen again,'' said forward Winston Smith, back this season after sitting out last year with a knee surgery. ''We want to go far in the NCAA Tournament and win the A-10 championship.''
You can't blame the players for looking ahead to the tourney. They joined a program that had made a steady progression from obscurity to Final Four participant. Now they're trying to avoid being remembered as the players who were there when the program took a downward spiral.
''This preseason has been a lot different since I've been here,'' said junior power forward Ajmal Basit. ''Before, we were like a team that was really hyped up. When I first came, they had just been to the Final Four. We were a big-time team. We had a down season when I was a freshman, so it died down, but we were kind of big-headed. But now everyone is, like, all business.''
This season, everything is in place for another 20-win season and perhaps a return trip to the tournament. In fact, UMass could be in for its most successful season under third-year coach Bruiser Flint.
Returning all but one player - power forward Tyrone Weeks - the Minutemen are at least two deep and experienced at every position for the first time in Flint's tenure. They may be the tallest team in school history, with five players 6 feet 8 inches or taller.
Leading the way for the Minutemen is 6-10, 270- pound senior center Lari Ketner (15.2 points per game, 7.4 rebounds per game), a first-team all-conference performer. This season Ketner must show he can consistenty lead the team at both ends of the floor. When on his game last year, he showcased a reliable turnaround jumper and short bank hook. He also gave the Minutemen an interior presence, with four or more rejections in seven games. Yet often Ketner struggled when defenses collapsed on him. He was plagued with inconsistency. Fouls were a concern, too: four or more in 13 contests.
Ketner plans to be more asssertive. ''This year, I want to command the ball,'' he said. ''I don't want to take on all the attention, but I want everyone to know I'm on the floor. Last year I would score here or there and go for a flurry and I'd disappear.''
Joining Ketner on the front line will be power forward Basit (6.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg), who is coming off foot surgery after being one of the best sixth men in the East last season. Add defensive stopper Mike Babul (4.1 ppg) at starting small forward and reserves Smith and Chris Kirkland, and you've got a front line rated 12th-best in the nation by Dick Vitale's College Basketball.
The backcourt will be led by senior point guard Charlton Clarke (12.6 ppg), the only player in the Minuteman rotation who played for former coach John Calipari and the team's best clutch shooter.
Former South Boston High standout Monty Mack (13.8 ppg) made an immediate impact last season after sitting out his freshman campaign for failing to meet eligibility requirements. But his status is in doubt, as last week he was named in an assualt and battery complaint filed by a student who said Mack attacked her during a dining hall fracas.
The UMass program that coined the motto ''Any team, any time, any place'' has toned down a bit on travel. The schedule is not easy, but the Minutemen do not leave the East Coast before January, a first since the 1988-89 season. That should help a team that appeared jet-lagged at the end of last season.
''I never got tired of playing last year; I just got tired of traveling,'' said sophomore guard Jonathan DePina, also formerly of South Boston. ''It seems like we were on a plane all the time.'' This season UMass plays 14 home games, an increase of four from last year.
UMass officials said this season's Midnight Madness crowd was its best in years. October was filled with optimism. Time will tell if a deeper team and a more palatable schedule translate into winning ways come March.
UMass: signs of progress Charlton Clarke isn't angry. But he's not happy, either. Standing at midcourt of Curry Hicks Cage, the UMass senior guard has huddled his team for a 20-second players-only meeting. Flint and his staff stand a few feet away, waiting and watching as Clarke gives his teammates a lecture/pep talk. ''Let's start playing smart out there,'' he said. ''Stop making these mistakes. And let's go out and have fun.'' With that, the Minutemen resume a practice that has a March intensity in late October. UMass is no longer the little school that could. First with Calipari, and for the last two years with Flint, the Minutemen have been a solid Top 20 team and, since 1991, an NCAA Tournament fixture. Flint, who has grown more confident, knows there is another problem facing his team. ''We're going to have to do something in March,'' he said with a laugh, acknowledging that in his two seasons the Minutemen have been one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament, including a first-round loss to Saint Louis last year. ''If we had just won that game, the attitude would probably be a lot different around here. That left a sour taste in everyone's mouth.'' But it's also a sign of progress. UMass has progressed so far that making the NCAA Tournament is no longer an uncertainty. The Minutemen are getting judged like other NCAA perennials, such as Kansas, Maryland, UConn, and Clemson, whose overall success is determined not by the regular-season record but how deep they go into the NCAA Tournament. ''That's good, I guess,'' said Flint. ''It means we've reached a certain level.'' Clarke's mid-practice talk is a sign of that. Practice has been sloppier than Flint wanted - but, more important, sloppier than the players wanted.