AMHERST - Ajmal Basit has always thought big.
The junior forward had those goals when he decided he wanted to play basketball at UMass. Basit experiences elation every time he makes a play, come to think of it. No one can pump a fist in the air with as much enthusiasm after making a simple layup.
Just imagine the energy coursing through the power forward's every limb when he tore down 19 rebounds against Rhode Island last year. Now, it's his turn to make UMass basketball something special, and Basit knows it.
``This year, that will be an average game,'' Basit recently predicted. ``When I'm on my game this year, I'll be getting 35 or 40. My goal is to lead the nation in rebounding.''
There are two ways to look at this. If Basit does indeed board this well during the 1998-99 college basketball season, then it will undoubtedly be his last as a college player.
Then again, these kind of offense-based rebounding numbers will also point to a severe deficiency elsewhere. It will mean that UMass, a team that was swamped by a litany of zone defenses down the stretch last season, still can't shoot the ball.
Therein lies the crux of the problem facing James ``Bruiser'' Flint in his third year as head coach. The Minutemen have marked his term by bowing out of the NCAA tournament in each of the last two years. Last year's edition, in particular, had trouble opening the floor for center Lari Ketner once opponents discovered that the Minutemen couldn't break a zone or a double team with a cruise missile.
Once Monty Mack hit the freshman wall, the Minutemen had few others to turn to for an open jumper.
Flint hopes to counteract at least part of the problem this year by encouraging his team to run a little more, albeit without lurching out of control.
An open floor will bring out the talents of point guard Jonathan DePina, for instance, not to mention the athletic talents of forwards Mike Babul and Chris Kirkland - neither of whom has an offensive solution more than five feet away from the basket.
The running game should also round out the talents of senior Charlton Clarke, the only remaining link to the 1996 Final Four team, and the player who is unequivocably this team's emotional leader.
No other Minuteman inspires this team more.
``I want to leave here with a banner,'' he said. ``The tournament was a big disappointment for us last year, but it can also be a motivational step. It bothers me a whole lot, though.''
Whether it bothers this entire team enough to make a difference is something that won't become apparent until the dog days of February.
Up front: Lari Ketner has spent the last two years trying to figure out his place. Two years ago, he cringed at the thought of replacing Marcus Camby. Last year, he wanted to be himself. This year, though, the 6-10 center wants to be the man, and none too soon.
Make that a man who wants to develop more of an attitude. This, perhaps, is the only way that this gifted scorer can finally develop some consistency.
``I want to become more aggressive. I want to command the ball,'' he said. ``There were times that I disappeared last year, when I was trying to get a feel for the game, and never did. I have to do a better job of staying in the game mentally.''
Basit, an effective sixth man last year, will take over Tyrone Weeks' spot at power forward. His nose for offensive rebounds and put-backs may emerge as this team's second most potent weapon, beyond Ketner.
But it's what follows that has UMass types truly excited. Ronnell Blizzard, a perimeter oriented big man, has also shown a nice touch around the basket in the preseason, in addition to a promising jumper. He could challenge Babul - still the designated defensive stopper on this team - for time at small forward. Kitwana Rhymer, a 6-10 sophomore whose prime value exists on defense, is ready to step in for time at center and power forward. And then there's Anthony Oates, a 6-10, 270-pound junior college transfer from Arizona who has been banging Ketner around in practice. He is said to be remarkably mobile for a player of his elephantine girth.
The perimeter: Let's start by saying that now that Winston Smith has returned after an injury-induced redshirt year, the Minutemen once again have three small forwards who don't have a consistent medium-range jumper. That's why Blizzard could conceivably challenge Babul, Kirkland and Smith in the so-called ``3'' spot.
But without Mack's offense, this equation will unravel further. Mack scored nine points off the bench during an exhibition game against Marathon Oil last Wednesday, and the 13-stitch cut on his left hand has apparently healed quite well. But the junior from South Boston High is also facing a show cause hearing in Northampton District Court on Nov. 20 to determine whether assault and battery charges should be brought, stemming from a fight two weeks ago in a UMass cafeteria. Any potential absence by Mack will hurt this team's outside game immeasurably.
To wit, DePina and Clarke combined to shoot 3-20 from the floor in the team's exhibition opener against Team Fokus.
The schedule: Some believe that last year's travel schedule - wild even by UMass standards - may have hit the team hard over the second half of the season. This year's lineup is far more restful. The team opens - at home, of all things - against Niagara tomorrow in the first round of the preseason NIT. Save for a Jan. 31 trip to Texas, this team doesn't leave the Eastern time zone this winter. Important non-conference dates include a Dec. 9 game against UConn in Amherst, a Dec. 15 game at Villanova, and a Jan. 16 game in Amherst against Kansas.