Flint finding his zone
By Mark Blaudschun, The Boston Globe Staff, 12/15/1998

Bruiser Flint knows that, for most people, the word association game with University of Massachusetts basketball still ends with John Calipari.

He also knows that despite winning 40 games in two seasons as the Minutemen's coach, he can still walk into the living room of a recruit and be dismissed with a wave and a smile as being too young, not experienced enough.

''I could see it,'' said Flint the other night, following a solid 75-45 victory over Boston College. ''I would go into people's homes and you could tell, I didn't have a chance. John was gone and UMass wasn't Kentucky or Duke or North Carolina.''

Coach Cal is three seasons gone now and Flint is finally beginning to feel comfortable with what he's doing and who he is.

That comfort zone has him smiling, even though the Minutemen are 2-4 and likely to be 2-5 after tonight's game at Villanova.

That comfort zone lets him assert himself as he did Saturday night when he benched starting center Lari Ketner for breaking team rules.

Flint knows his players are watching what he does and how he does it. He knows he will be judged by a different yardstick. Calipari's recruits are fading from the scene and Flint must stand - or fall - on the strength of his coaching and his players.

''Sure people judge you,'' he said. ''You expect that. And if anything negative happens, you can bet they'll use it against you in a heartbeat.''

Which is why the situation with Ketner is dangerous. Flint can't be too tough or the word will go out that he can't handle his players. He can't be too easy or the word will filter down that UMass is a program that has lost control of its players.

Flint has tried different things with Ketner. He has been in his face and he has backed off, offering words of advice and encouragement. In the face of Ketner's latest misstep, Flint offered some soft words.

''He's trying too hard,'' said Flint. ''He knows what people expect. But in a lot of ways we're still dealing with someone who is still maturing; we're still dealing with a kid in a lot of ways. He knows there is pressure on him. He reads the papers.''

So does Bruiser. He reads that his success was because Calipari left a program stocked with Top 20 talent. He reads that he has yet to prove himself as a coach - two first-round losses in the NCAA tournament have raised some eyebrows. His recruits have yet to prove themselves.

Starting 2-4 has not helped. Let's face it - Calipari set a high standard of expectations at the Mullins Center. His ''play anywhere, anytime'' theory of basketball worked to get UMass into the national spotlight.

When Calipairi left, a lot of people thought UMass would fall to a level where gaining the Top 20 was a surprise.

''I know what people were saying when Cal left,'' said Flint, who received a two-year contract extension from athletic director Bob Marcum last week.''That the program would never be what it was. It would fall apart.''

UMass may never get back to the Final Four. It may be what it appears to be right now, a nice program that will have winning records and make an occasional splash in March.

But remember, a decade ago the University of Connecticut was in a similiar position. Jim Calhoun, who is still trying to make his first Final Four, has turned UConn into a program that kids not only know about but want to be a part of.

UMass can do the same thing. The Mullins Center is a first-rate campus facility. The Atlantic 10 is a big-time league.

And Bruiser Flint can be a successful big-time coach.

It will just take some time - and patience.

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