AMHERST - With the season for better or worse either just over or just under a month away from completion, it promises to be an interesting offseason in Amherst.
The University of Massachusetts men's basketball team will begin to examine itself and what steps need to be taken to bring the Minutemen back to the level that everyone involved hopes can be maintained.
The following is a look at some of the major factors that will be looked at.
The attackers have been prevalent and downright nasty. Whether it be in the stands at the Mullins Center or in internet chat rooms, there is a considerable number of UMass fans, unhappy with this season's disappointing results, who have called for third-year coach Bruiser Flint's head.
Flint has decided to take the personal attacks in stride.
"Fans are going to be fans," he said. "The fair-weather ones, if you win they love you, if you lose they hate you. I'm disappointed myself. I want to win and you gotta win for people to stop saying those things. I'm searching just like everybody else. As a coach you take too much of the blame and too much of the credit. When things are going good, it's not always me doing a magnificent job coaching, guys are playing better. When you're losing hey, that's the nature of the business.
"You just keep plugging, try some new ideas, try to get guys going," he continued. "It's just how your guys react to it. If they don't react to it, your hands are tied. You really hope they turn themselves around. We have two or three guys that are our focus and guys that play their roles, and some of those two or three guys are struggling and that puts a lot of pressure on the role-playing guys."
Earlier this season Flint received a contract extension that will keep him in Amherst at least until the 2001-2002 season. According to him the pact was in the works well before the season started.
"We talked about a new contract after the NCAA Tournament last year," Flint said. "It was just a matter of crossing the t's and dotting the i's."
Even with the new pact however he doesn't feel a sense of security.
"They can buy you out in a second. There ain't no security. If they don't want you, they'll get rid of you," he said. "We can't be confident. I want to win. That's the name of the game, to win games. There is no security."
Still Flint expects to be on the UMass sideline next year.
"I been to two NCAA Tournaments and I've won some games here," Flint said. "You never know what people are going to do, but from all indications from (Athletic Director) Bob Marcum and everybody else, I'm fine and I can only go by what they say."
Junior guard Monty Mack gave his coach a vote of confidence.
"It's not his fault we're not winning," Mack said. "It's ours. We're the ones making the mistakes and I don't think it should jeopardize his job or anything."
It is the part of coaching that coaches like the least. Recruiting is the annual ulcer-producing dog-and-pony show performed by assistant and head coaches trying to infuse their programs with new talent to keep their teams at a high level.
Since taking over as head coach of the Minutemen, Flint has been in a difficult position as a recruiter.
Flint's first year began with the cloud on potential NCAA sanctions hanging over his head in the aftermath of the Marcus Camby debacle. Complicating recruiting further was that only Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso were graduating.
With Charlton Clarke slated to move into one guard spot, there wasn't a lot of playing time to be offered.
After losing out on Everett High product Shannon Crooks, the Minutemen signed guards Jonathan DePina, Rafael Cruz, center/forward Kitwana Rhymer and forward Ronell Blizzard
DePina has struggled at times, but has played better lately. Cruz can obviously score, but needs to work on his defense before seeing regular minutes.
After redshirting last year, Blizzard has shown flashes of brilliance, but defense and work ethic are question marks here too. Rhymer may be the best of the lot. He has played well in stretches and shows promise that he could be a regular contributor.
Last year Flint had only two scholarships to offer and with Tyrone Weeks the only player leaving, he didn't have extensive playing time to offer any recruits. One went to Crooks who changed his mind and returned to UMass as a transfer from St. John's. The other was slated to go to highly-regarded shooting guard Scott Clark, but the Boston native's academic problems forced him to opt for junior college instead.
The Minutemen picked up a rare junior college transfer in Anthony Oates with the other.
Crooks has had to sit out due to NCAA transfer regulations, but his ability and play in practice has drawn raves. Oates has struggled to adjust so far to the college game, while the Minutemen could use Clark's offense.
Even with three scholarships to offer this year, now that Ajmal Basit's grant has been freed up, Flint isn't dealing from a position of strength in terms of playing time to offer.
Milford Academy center Micah Brand is already signed and Flint is on the recruiting trail hoping to bring in either a scorer or a point guard.
Despite UMass's rocky year, Flint said recruiting has not been affected.
"I don't think anyone has jumped off since we got off to a tough start," Flint said. "I think our relationship with kids is better than anytime since I've been here."
Many of those relationships are with high school juniors. While coaches are not allowed by the NCAA to talk to players directly until after their junior year, there are legal ways to begin correspondence and gauge interest.
There is a strong local crop in the junior class and most of the local players and some from out of the area - three of whom are ranked among the top 25 high school juniors by Prep Stars magazine - have indicated interest in UMass.
"It's easier because kids can get playing time," Flint said. "The last couple years, kids have looked at our roster and said "Where am I gonna play?" We've only really lost three people over the last couple of years. I don't make a lot of promises. That's one of the reasons that Shannon didn't come here."
The Minutemen who will advance into the next millennium will be as athletic a squad as UMass has ever featured. Whether that will transfer into wins remains to be seen.
The impact of Ketner's departure will interesting. On one hand, after his difficult season, the Minutemen might benefit from getting a fresh start, but even a struggling Ketner drew considerable defensive attention away from his teammates that Rhymer won't likely be able to attract.
"I don't think Kit is going to be 20-points a game scorer, but if Kit keeps improving, I think he can help us. I think we actually become a little bit better defensively with him in the post," Flint said. "Chris Kirkland has improved leaps and bounds and hopefully Kit can improve the same way."
Replacing Clarke, will be Crooks. Crooks' speed and quickness will allow the Minutemen to switch to a more up tempo pace that they were unable to employ this year.
But according to Flint the most important change will come off the court.
"A lot of it has to do with the attitude of the players on the team. If our attitudes are different, we'll be better," Flint said.
Mack doesn't want the team to forget this season.
"I think it can carry over because people know how it feels to lose," Mack said. "I think next year nobody wants to feel the same way. People will work hard so they know how it feels to win again."
He still isn't ready to write off this year.
"It's just tough in that I think I've tried everything this year. At times you can say we're just not good enough, but I can't say that. We have talented players. We've shown on nights that we can play with, whoever we want to play with," Flint said. "Did I think we'd be 10-12 right now (11-12 as of Friday)? Nope. I thought we would have a winning record, challenging in the Atlantic 10.
"We still have a shot. I'm looking at it like, we keep getting opportunities," Flint said. "At some point in time we have to take advantage of them. That's what I keep preaching to my team. People can say that's just coaches' talk, but I also say it to my team. I'm not just saying it because it sounds good in the media. We can do it if we want to. We can win our last five games."