NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. - It was quite a spectacle. College of Charleston fans stormed onto the court as if someone had dropped a winning Powerball ticket there, and they rejoiced with the home team players, who had just beaten the University of Massachusetts. Dozens of fans stood behind players and cheered while they were being interviewed on radio. Players could hardly control their elation in the postgame press conference, and even the coach beamed with pride.
''This was one of the great basketball games that the Charleston community has ever seen,'' said coach John Kresse.
These were sure indications that UMass's reputation is intact: Opponents take the floor and still see the ghosts of Marcus Camby, Lou Roe, and Edgar Padilla. Fans still remember the Refuse to Lose campaign and the dramatic second-half run of 1996-97. The national perception is still that it's a program that's reloading, not rebuilding.
That is the only way you can explain Charleston's antics after its 77-75 win Tuesday night, the only way you can justify why, after a lackluster victory over Niagara and a lopsided loss to St. John's, the Minutemen were still on the fringes of national prominence - ranked 26th in the USA Today/ESPN poll.
But those perceptions might change soon. The Minutemen (1-2) enter Saturday's contest at Marshall a struggling bunch, spotty offensively and defensively, and nowhere near the caliber of program picked by Athlon to finish in the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament.
''I'm getting sick of watching some of these guys,'' said coach Bruiser Flint, as disgusted as he's been during his three-year tenure. The coach said he would make changes in his lineup but declined to reveal them. ''If you're not bringing it every night, you have to sit down. So we'll see how it goes from there.''
Even after changes are made, the question remains: Can the Minutemen improve in time to catch up to their laurels? Without an upgrade in their current play, the Minutemen - one of the most successful college sports programs in the 1990s - will discover what it's like to be Georgetown and Virginia in basketball, Clemson and Oklahoma in football, no longer the big deal they once were.
When word gets around you're not the team you once were, it's not easy regaining that reputation. Then you consistently get comments like that from St. John's players, who after beating the then 23d-ranked Minutemen said the only difference in the programs was that UMass had a ranking.
Flint knew the game against Charleston, which returned all of its starters from an NCAA tournament team, would have been a big-statement win. ''This is a tough place to play; they were 14-1 down here,'' he said. ''I knew this would have been a good win for us.
''Now we go to Marshall, which isn't easy, either. And then we've got [top-ranked] Connecticut, which isn't easy. This would have been a big win for us. We lost a tough one at St. John's, and I wanted to come down here'' and make a statement.
Now Flint hopes that shaking up his lineup will improve the performance of a team which has yet to play inspired basketball for two halves and after three games has led by double digits only momentarily - in the second half against Niagara. The coach is taking solace in the fact that the season is still young and most teams are working out the kinks.
But Flint is fed up with players looking in sync only in practice. It will be interesting to see how UMass responds should Flint carry out his plan to bench some players.
''To be honest with you, we've had some good practices,'' Flint said. ''Great practices some days. Guys worked hard, did what they needed to do. But at 7:20, you have to be ready. It's game day. You have to come ready to play. You've got to show me that you deserve to be out there, show me that I shouldn't have benched you.''
Having just watched his team go Dixie at Charleston, S.C., Bruiser Flint flipped his lid Tuesday, revealing how precarious a situation his University of Massachusetts men's basketball team is in.
UMass had lost 77-75 to College of Charleston, and Flint felt his team had again showed an inadequate heart, hanging its collective head when things didn't go its way. And at the center of his ire was his center, Lari Ketner, who had just completed a vanishing act that would have done David Copperfield's stage act proud.
Five points, no rebounds. And now Ketner, like UMass, faces a crossroads far earlier than anyone expected.
"Lari was awful," Flint said. "Lari stunk." And Lari's starting spot, the coach said, was under review.
The problem many people have suspected, but had previously only whispered about, is out in the open. When the going gets tough, the supposedly best player disappears all too often.
It's too bad Saturday's UMass-Marshall game isn't on TV, because it's huge. Does UMass have a big cavity where the heart is supposed to be? Can punishment jump-start Ketner where coddling has not? We'll soon see.
One thing about Flint is that he doesn't give the impression he can do much more to motivate this likable but weird group. It's up to them, he says, which may be true but doesn't entirely absolve him, either.
But is it Flint's fault for not figuring out how to push Ketner's buttons, or is it Ketner's for waiting to have his buttons pushed? Ketner was not available for comment. But he's a captain, which is easy to forget, and he's expected to be a high NBA draft pick, which is also easy to forget.
In his defense, he's being asked to be something he's not. Ketner has never said he's All-This or All-That, but others have done it so much that we now take the expectations as fact. And he's a passive person at heart, so asking him to snort fire is really asking him not to be Lari Ketner.
On the other hand, he's the one hoping to collect NBA millions, and he's been babied ever since he came to UMass. He started playing basketball late, we heard. He had to sit out his freshman year. He's still only 21. Let Lari be.
But time is running out. Compared to Ketner, Marcus Camby was a Harrison Ford character, fearful of no one. Right now, Ketner might be the most overrated player in the United States.
Flint indicated the days of kid-glove treatment are over. For the first time, Ketner will be treated like a full-fledged adult, not a delicate work of art under glass.
Flint also said Ketner might be able to play for UMass next year, if the school successfully petitions the NCAA to restore the lost freshman season. That was news to everybody, but suddenly, it doesn't sound like such good news.
According to Flint, the team's heart problem goes beyond Ketner. But does it? Charlton Clarke always plays hard. Monty Mack looks like the All-American Ketner was supposed to be. Other guys have been inconsistent, but all signs point back to Ketner, getting worse when he's supposed to be getting better.
Flint doesn't know what words would work, so it looks like he'll take action. The results have tremendous long-term consequences for UMass, for Ketner and for Flint.
This program has rested precariously on the shoulders of a player who hasn't wanted its weight. Flint can't wait any longer. What happens next will finally tell us if Lari Ketner will ever be the player we've heard about, and not the one we've seen.
Bruiser Flint sounds like a New Age healer.
He wants his UMass players to search their souls, to find the hard-nosed gym rats within.
And why not? In the wake of Tuesday's bewildering 77-75 loss to the College of Charleston, the coach is no longer certain that a heart beats in his supposedly veteran lineup.
The Minutemen have played three teams with smaller lineups, but they have yet to flex their size advantage. On Tuesday, center Lari Ketner, an NBA hopeful, took only two shots and finished without a rebound in 13 minutes.
Ketner was the most obvious target when Flint threatened to make changes for Saturday's game against Marshall.
Ketner hasn't been the only culprit in the Minutemen's 1-2 start, but if bringing his most talented player off the bench sends a message to the team, Flint appears prepared to do that.
"If a player goes into the tank, then you don't play him," Flint said. "I want a player who will go out there on the floor and do something, as a way of saying, 'You know what? You were wrong to sit me on the bench.' "
Flint hasn't said he'll remove Ketner, or anyone else, from the starting lineup this weekend. But he has promised to make changes to spark his rotation.
"It's not even a matter of whether someone has come to play -- it's more a case of, in the course of the game, how do you react?" Flint said of his team's recent tendency to wilt under pressure. "If you have the ball smacked out of your hand, how do you react? That's what is wrong with this team. These guys miss a shot, and they think that it's the end of the world. And my thing is, 'OK, go out and get me some rebounds, or loose balls.'
"That's what I wrote on the board (before the Charleston game): 'Whatever you can do to help the team, do it,' " he said. "And guys nod their heads, and say, 'Yeah.' But these are the things that you get sick of talking about -- the things that make me upset."
The upside to UMass' dilemma is that Flint has become upset in the first month -- and it's early enough for a solution.
That said, the Minutemen will play No. 1 UConn next Wednesday.
UMass has always seemed to step up for No. 1 teams, dating to a win over No. 1 Kentucky in the first game of the 1996 season, a win over No. 1 Arkansas in 1995, and a win over No. 1 North Carolina in 1994.
But a repeat seems unlikely after this Minutemen team's start.