AMHERST - At times they were a team of gigglers, a team that liked to joke around, but when they walked off the floor following a first-round NCAA loss last March in Atlanta, they were a team of long faces.
Since they've returned to campus in September, coach Bruiser Flint has noticed a significant drop-off in the joking and new fire in his players' eyes.
"It's a little bit more serious," Flint said. "I always get on my team because they've been somewhat immature and silly, but we're not really having that this year. Being around the guys lifting and running is a little more serious than in the past. Not a whole lot of joking and laughing and things like that. I think they matured in a lot of ways."
That seriousness stems from a belief that this team has a chance to be special and the fear of feeling in the pit of their stomachs the way they felt after losing to Saint Louis.
"The game last year, losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, left a bad taste in those guys' mouths," Flint said. "I hope that's a motivational tool for them so they feel they can get to the tournament and win some games."
"We realize we have a really good team," said junior Ajmal Basit, who likely will earn the starting spot at power forward. "Everybody on this team is really focused going into this season. Everybody has that hunger for a little bit more."
"I think a lot of people are more focused," agreed Chris Kirkland. "If someone is down, there are a lot of people there to pick them up. Trying to keep everybody on the same level, the same page. In a way we have something to prove to everybody, but right now we just need to prove to ourselves that we can do it. I think we can."
Because of his inconsistent play in the past, senior center Lari Ketner's motivation has been called into question, but he appears to be on the same page as his teammates.
"I feel as though this team has grown up a lot," Ketner said. "We lost, everybody felt bad, and people felt bad for Tyrone (Weeks, who had the option of returning for another season, and did.). Me and Charlton don't want to go out like that. I feel as though we have the talent and the coaching to go real far."
Monty Mack, Lari Ketner & Charlton Clarke are ready to pump you up. Jerrey Roberts, Daily Hampshire Gazette, photo
To help achieve those goals Flint addressed some other issues as well. With considerable depth at his discretion already, he brought in junior college center Anthony Oates, which could help right away, leaving the Minutemen with no true freshman to deal with growing pains.
Travel led to fatigue
Last year's travel itinerary, which moved the Minutemen all over the nation, contributed to late-season fatigue, according to Flint.
"Last year's travel was kind of ridiculous," Flint admitted, "and that catches up with you."
This season only a late January trip to Texas takes UMass out of the Eastern Time Zone. Not only that, the Minutemen play 14 games in the Mullins Center's cozy confines and another two games in New England.
The national media has noticed UMass' potential, as the Minutemen have been ranked in several national publications, including as high as No. 17, but many of the Minutemen have set their sights considerably higher.
"I think we have a chance to do some special things," said senior Charlton Clarke. "Tampa (the site of the Final Four), that's what we're going for. I'm not going to sell myself short and I'm not going to let my team sell themselves short."
For now Flint is looking forward to putting that enthusiasm into the gym.
Winston Smith & Mike Babul get ready for the next phase of BruiserBall. Jerrey Roberts, Daily Hampshire Gazette, photo
"I'm excited because they're excited," he said. "They know they have a chance to do something special."