UMass still a mystery: Flint can't figure his Minutemen
By Mark Murphy, The Boston Herald, 1/23/1999

PHILADELPHIA - Bruiser Flint signed a two-year contract extension this season and considered it to be hard-earned.

The UMass basketball coach answered the departure of John Calipari and Marcus Camby - and all the chaos Camby's dalliances created on the recruiting front - by getting the team into the NCAA tournament in his first two seasons, albeit with a first-round exit each time.

That didn't stop a few associates from cracking a somewhat subtle joke when the extension was made public.

The Minutemen were stumbling incoherently through a nightmarish December at the time. Flint's teams had built a track record of slow starts, but even the coach had to admit that this one - coming from a veteran team - was perplexing.

Thus the joke, which in its various forms boiled down to this:

``Hey, Bru, it looks like you signed that contract extension just in time.''

Flint, in Philadelphia this week for a two-game road trip that culminates with today's game against Temple (ESPN, noon), wants to erase that humor-sweetened perception.

``A lot of people said that,'' he said. ``I would laugh it off and say, `OK, yeah,' but it bothered me that people said that. I mean, I've won here. I've been to two NCAA tournaments. And I've never worried about the support from the people at school. (UMass athletic director) Bob Marcum has always been behind me.''

But the Amherst community, thanks to the incredible success of the UMass men's team over the last decade, is nouveau and spoiled when it comes to college basketball.

Few remember the hard times.

Perhaps that's why Flint can feel very alone while attempting to figure out this team.

And it hasn't been easy.

Pull up a couch

``We've tried a sports psychologist. We've tried group sessions, and meetings,'' said Flint. ``You know what's frustrating? If you're a coach, and your players just aren't good enough, then you have to accept it. But if your players are good enough, then it gets very frustrating.

``You find out that you're dealing with kids, and sometimes they don't get it,'' he said. ``But the last 10 days or so have been different, because mentally this team has been different. It's even different just in the way the guys are walking around now.

``The guys feel better about themselves now, and I'm not even sure that it's because we've won a few games.''

The Minutemen have gone 4-1 since they beat Fordham on Jan. 7, including the first major hit of the season - a win over then-No. 15 Kansas last Saturday.

But the undercurrents remain. Lari Ketner, so internally twisted by his NBA prospects, has played much better in that stretch, though he still hasn't returned to being the major scorer the team needs.

When Ajmal Basit asked Flint for permission to relinquish his starting role and return to the bench, it may have been the most sincere gesture the struggling junior forward has made on the basketball court this season. He's the new Alaa Abdelnaby - a player who flaunts his underachievement.

But even Basit has improved lately.

Today's game against Temple - the best team in the Atlantic 10 - comes at a good time, then, when a few people are possibly ready to grow up.

So many meetings

There was the tear-drenched gnashing of teeth that followed a 22-point loss to Marshall. There was the 2-hour encounter group that delayed the bus ride down to Fordham. There were all those briefings by the sports psychologist, in between.

Flint can sound much older than his 33 years when he starts in with the ``when I was your age'' talk. But there it is. Players are different now. They can be extremely sensitive, like Ketner, or goofy and unfocused, like Basit.

``They are different,'' Flint insisted, not happy about it. ``They are. How many of them actually like to play basketball? For us, even when you weren't playing basketball, you were playing basketball.

``My recreation is basketball. With my players? Their receation is PlayStation. It's not a bad thing, but it can affect your focus, and how much you really care.''

In his attempt to teach lessons, and maybe even learn a few himself, Flint told his players about his senior year at St. Joseph's in 1987.

He had come off the bench a season earlier to help the Hawks win the A-10 title - and all but two of those players had returned.

``That team was like this one,'' he said. ``But with that team, we got off to a great start, 11-4, and we ended up 17-14. Guys got down on themselves, and they got down on each other.

``I just got to the point where I was having a good year, and I told myself I was going to go for all-conference, since we weren't doing anything as a team. And I made all-conference. We were just awful as a team.''

In this regard, Flint considers the term ``selfish'' to have several meanings.

Did Flint consider himself selfish at the time? What would he say to a player with the same approach, now?

``Of course you don't think of yourself as selfish at a time like that,'' he said. ``If it was one of my players, I'd tell him that it wouldn't always help the team.

``But in sports you also have to be selfish enough to do your job. There is an `I' in team in that way.''

This would indeed seem to be a major part of Ketner's problem with the ball. The senior, who at times plays like one of the most gifted big men in the country, doesn't necessarily want to score more than his usual 10 points per game.

``This year I've really learned that the mental side of things can really affect your team in a lot of ways,'' Flint said. ``We've really had guys struggling within themselves, and not just a couple. It's taken a toll on us.

``And when you're dealing with kids and they're growing and maturing, the best thing about it is that they're growing and maturing. Lou Roe pressed towards the end of his last year the way Lari has. The good thing with Lari was that it came out in front of everyone. He expressed himself.''

Minutemen deserving

When the Minutemen were ranked No. 23 in the Associated Press' preseason poll - for sanity's sake let's forget about cracking Sports Illustrated's top 10 - Flint nodded his head. Three years ago, when they had his team at No. 13, he called it ridiculous. But this he agreed with.

``I thought we were a Top 25 team,'' he said. ``I also thought we'd make the tournament. Who wouldn't expect that? We're an experienced team, with all but one of the same guys back.''

Flint also says that it's early. The Minutemen are 4-1 within the A-10; thus, there is still time. But what if everyone's worst fear comes true - and the Minutemen don't qualify for the NCAA tournament?

``Sure, I'll be disappointed, because I expected a lot out of this team,'' he said. ``But if you saw us in the Iona game, you'd never think that we'd even have come this far.''

Iona coach Jeff Ruland called Flint earlier this week to offer congratulations for the win over Kansas. The former Washington Bullet sounded genuinely happy when he wished Flint luck, right after he said, ``I'm glad I got you early.''

Nothing could have encouraged Flint more.

``Coaches take too much of the blame, as well as too much of the credit,'' he said. ``I try to talk the guys through it, but I think they really do feel better about themselves now.

``So we laugh. We know it's not over.''

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