AMHERST, Mass. - Humble.
It's a rare description of today's college hoop players but that's about the only way to describe UMass' budding 'go to guy', Chris "Condor" Kirkland. Like the bird his nickname represents, Kirkland is a rare kind of player.
Those of us who are tired of watching players pound their chests or "pump up" the crowd or gesture to their opponents finally have someone to cheer for.
Against Xavier, Kirkland scored 25 points (9-12 from the floor) and nearly matched his career high of 26 points that he set in the previous game versus George Washington. Kirkland also had 13 rebounds, 3 blocked shots, 3 assists and 1 steal against the Musketeers. But the statistics do not come close to telling the tale.
The Condor was everywhere. Diving on the floor. Blocking out. Setting screens and just plain hustling at both ends of the floor.
Better yet, despite being the high scorer for the second consecutive game he still can't get a play run specifically for him.
UMass coach James "Bruiser" Flint laughed when he called him the "fourth option."
But Flint soon became serious about Kirkland. "He's a weapon now," he said.
After the game, I asked Xavier coach Skip Prosser if his team expected that type of performance from Kirkland. He said his team watched the UMass-GW game. "We knew what he was capable of," Prosser said.
Coming into the season very few people could have predicted this.
Kirkland started the year on the bench but good things started happening for him during the year's sixth game when he started in place of Lari Ketner. In that game, against Boston College, the Condor registered a double-double. Three games later he replaced now-departed Ajmal Basit in the starting lineup on a permanent basis.
Since then Kirkland hasn't looked back. As a starter he's averaging over 11 points per game and nearly 8 rebounds per game.
"For weeks I've been screaming to Linda Bruno (the A-10 commissioner) that Monty Mack should get Atlantic 10 player of the week honors," said Flint. Last week Mack received that award and now, Flint said, Kirkland deserves it because scoring 20 points or more in back-to-back games is rare in the Atlantic 10.
Flint said Kirkland's effort in practice is now paying dividends as witnessed by his improved jump shot and drive.
"He came from a situation where the competition wasn't that steep," Flint said. "His skill level (since coming to UMass) has become a lot better," Flint said.
Flint, who tosses compliments around like they were manhole covers, wasn't willing to concede that Kirkland's "arrived." Flint emphasized, "He still needs to get stronger" to play effectively at this level.
But here's the good news for UMass fans.
Said the coach, "The kid works on his game."