AMHERST - The University of Massachusetts men's basketball team realizes the 1998-99 season is an opportunity.
With a rotation that could run 12 deep and a team that has the most ability since the 1996 squad, the Minutemen begin the season with dreams of a run through the NCAA Tournament in March and possibly a chance to return to the Final Four.
But the combination of deep and talented can be a plus or a minus.
If the Minutemen can sacrifice ego for a common goal, their depth and size gives them a chance to be among the nation's strongest teams.
But if the lack of enough shots and minutes to go around becomes the impetus for bickering and bitterness, the Minutemen could be headed for disaster.
Still, as the season's opening tip approaches with another tough schedule to follow, the 1998-99 edition of UMass basketball promises to be interesting at least, and thrilling at best.
Following is a look at the team, by position.
Senior Lari Ketner has pledged to be both a leader and a player who can dominate offensively. If he fulfills his promise, he could be an NBA first-round draft choice, but Ketner said his goals are still based in Amherst.
"I don't think about the NBA too much, I just try to concentrate on the season," said Ketner, who averaged 15.2 points and 7.4 rebounds a game last year. "My teammates talk about it more than I do. I just want to get to the Final Four and reach my goals I set for college. I want to graduate and take the team as far as they can go."
Mammoth junior college transfer Anthony Oates and athletic sophomore Kitwana Rhymer will back up Ketner in the pivot.
Ajmal Basit finally gets his coveted spot in the starting lineup this year, replacing the graduated Tyrone Weeks.
Basit, who averaged 6.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, will be asked to increase both his scoring and his rebounding in Weeks' absence.
While Ronell Blizzard and Chris Kirkland both will see considerable playing time at small forward, they will be asked to spell Basit inside, as will Rhymer and Oates.
At small forward Mike Babul has retained his starting spot, but will see heavy competition for minutes from Kirkland, Blizzard and Winston Smith. Smith missed last season with a torn ACL.
While Ketner will be asked to lead by example, there is no question that the vocal leadership falls on the shoulders of senior point guard Charlton Clarke.
UMass coach Bruiser Flint, however, wants more than just verbal leadership from his captain.
"Charlton talks a lot, but people are going to say 'show me'. He has to realize that he can't talk all the time," Flint said. "You have to go out every day and prove that you're a leader on the team. That's always been my thing with him. Stop talking all the time and show what you can do. Charlton is a great kid and I love him, but he has to show it."
Shooting guard Monty Mack showed it last year, averaging 13.8 points in his first campaign. After spending most of the summer in Amherst working with a trainer, Mack, a junior, got stronger physically. Flint believes that change will elevate him even further.
"Monty has a chance not only to be one of the best guards in our league, but in the country," Flint said. "He had a pretty good first year. He needed to get in shape. I thought he did that this summer. I worked pretty hard with Bob Otrando, our weight and strength coach."
The backcourt will be deeper as well. Sophomore Jon DePina will be the first guard off the bench and will be vital when UMass runs its more up-tempo offense. Fellow sophomore Rafael Cruz improved at the end of last season and has been impressive offensively so far in the preseason, which will ensure him more time on the floor.
AMHERST - Mike Babul is a realist. He pulls no punches and tells it like it is.
So while he admits he wants to score more points and contribute more, he knows that there are three other guys - Chris Kirkland, Winston Smith and Ronell Blizzard - who can also play his position of small forward.
"It's going to be tough. People need to accept their roles. I don't think anyone of the threes are going to be playing more than 30 minutes a game," Babul said. "If we can gel and coach can get it across who's gonna play and who's not going to play, hopefully everybody will be happy. But I know some people aren't going to be happy. But its good because you have to go hard every day in practice. If you have a guy that thinks he should be playing more and getting more shots, that can bring down the team."
At least in Babul's case he knows he's the starter, while the other three won't know when or even if they'll be inserted from game to game.
UMass coach Bruiser Flint has taken a diplomatic approach so far.
"The thing I keep trying to express to the guys is that everybody is going to help us at some time and you need to be ready," Flint said. "It's all about winning, not how much time you're going to play."
Each of the guys posturing for playing time brings a different set of skills to the court, while all four figure to benefit from the new up-tempo offense.
* Babul has been recognized for his defensive prowess last year and has been more active on the offensive glass during preseason.
"Thing I want Mike to do is be more aggressive," Flint said. "If people play off you, knock it down... hard drives to the basket. Go in rebound, tip balls."
* Kirkland is the most athletic Minuteman and emerged as a crowd favorite for his leaping and dunking ability as well as his willingness to dive on the floor for loose balls. His versatility and ability to also see time at power forward will go a long way to alleviating the log jam.
"Chris has played well," Flint said. "He's found his niche. He knows where he can play. He knows he can play the four and at the three. He runs at the rim. He's real athletic and he's playing better."
*The wild card is definitely Blizzard, who has been terrific in the preseason. As a 6-foot-8 player who can both leap and shoot from outside, Blizzard will be hard to defend, while his quickness and ability to rebound and block shots could make him a presence at the other end of the floor. If that play continues, Flint will be forced to find minutes for him at either forward spot.
"Blizzard is the one that you say 'Man where did he come from?' I'm not going to lie to you, I'm a little shocked myself," Flint said. "Blizz has been playing well. The thing I've been telling him is to be active. The thing he can do is shoot. He makes you play him. He's active. He keeps balls alive. That's what we need him to do to be helpful."
This is a far cry from where Blizzard was a year ago, before redshirting.
"Practice killed him. He just wasn't ready," Flint explained. "He was tired. He had Tyrone, Lari and Ajmal beating up on him every day. He had a few injuries that set him back and that happens. I said you need to redshirt. He said OK. He was only practicing once or twice a week because he was hurt and he was exhausted. It was tough for him, but it was a good experience for him. But he handles it better now and I think that's why he's a little more confident on the court."
Blizzard is the first to admit that the year off benefited him greatly.
"I learned a tremendous amount. I learned from just being able to step away from the game and watch it," Blizzard said. "That was what Bruiser told me to focus on, to remember that this thing will pay off down the road."
* Prior to tearing his ACL last year, Smith had a tenuous hold on the No. 1 small forward title after his freshman season. But he returns without a defined role and no guarantee of minutes.
While the competition in practice has been fierce, all four pledge friendship off the court and unity during games.
Blizzard believes that the personalities of the people involved will help avoid pitfalls.
"We have a lot of talent on the team and the important thing is not to have any egos and I think that's going to work out," Blizzard said.
"Winston is my best friend on the team off the court. I think we're mature enough and good enough friends to be able to handle it," he said. "I'm good friends with Chris and Ronell too. We're all tight... the whole team."
AMHERST - The image will forever be ingrained in the memories of University of Massachusetts basketball fans.
Junior forward Lou Roe jumped onto the Madison Square Garden press table, threw his arms in the air and bellowed with sheer delight.
The Minutemen had just knocked off the No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels in the semifinals of the 1993 Preseason NIT, taking an enormous step toward establishing themselves as a rising national power.
Five years later UMass is returning to the event, which has more than a little in common with its 1993 predecessor.
For starters, the Minutemen open this year's tournament, and opened that one, with basketball also-rans. This year it's Niagara, while Cleveland State was the '93 gimme. On both occasions St. John's would be the second-round opponent. It's no small bit of Minuteman karma that the Tar Heels also are among the 16-team field this year.
UMass as a team is similar, too. Much like the 1993 squad, the Minutemen are talented but still have a lot to prove before they can be perceived as an elite program.
Following are brief looks at this year's first-round matchups.
No. 3 Stanford vs. Southern Methodist - Picked by some experts to win the NCAA title, the Cardinal is clearly the favorite to capture the Preseason NIT. Stanford returns five starters after its Final Four run a year ago.
If UMass and Stanford advance to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden, the game would feature eight players 6-foot-9 or bigger.
If the Mustangs were facing anyone else in the opener, they would be a candidate to pull off an upset. But led by Jeryl Sasser, the WAC Freshman of the Year last season, the SMU backcourt will have to play over its head for a chance to win.
No. 11 North Carolina vs. Florida International - The Tar Heels will be a better team in January than they are in November, as coach Bill Guthridge's squad will rely heavily on freshmen, who still could be a little green in the Preseason NIT. That could leave them vulnerable in a projected second-round game with College of Charleston or Georgia.
Coach Shakey Rodriguez's Golden Panthers are the favorite in the Sun Belt this season, returning five starters from a team that lost in the conference finals.
No. 16 Purdue vs. Illinois-Chicago - The Boilermakers lost leaders Chad Austin and Brad Miller from last year's squad that advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, but still will have considerable talent, led by senior point guard Alan Eldridge and forwards Brian Cardinal and Mike Robinson.
Last year's Flames might have made things interesting on their way to the NCAA Tournament, but graduation claimed four starters, leaving Illinois-Chicago as long underdogs in this one.
No. 24 UMass vs. Niagara - While hardly a household name, the Purple Eagles crushed NCAA Tournament-bound St. John's last year.
Last year's leading scorer, Alvin Young, will bring an upset-minded team into the Mullins Center.
Georgia vs. College of Charleston - The best of three teams in the field with the Bulldog nickname, Georgia will have its hands full in the first round. Sophomore Jumaine Jones is among the nation's best players and will lead a team that could make noise in the SEC.
College of Charleston, led by senior forward/center Sedric Webber, remains one of the top small-conference schools in the country.
Returning all five starters from their NCAA Tournament team a year ago, Charleston has early battles scheduled with UMass, South Carolina and North Carolina, as well as this matchup with Georgia, in hopes of gaining national attention.
Memphis vs. Gonzaga - South Hadley native Aaron Mulvaugh has joined a Memphis team that appears ready to vault back toward national power status. The Tigers are led by Omar Sneed, who averaged 20.9 points per game a year ago.
By the time this game tips off, the Bulldogs will be more battle-tested than some, having already played Kansas (ranked No. 8 in the preseason), but Gonzaga is still a long shot in this one.
St. John's vs. UNC-Asheville - No team has more pressure on it in this tournament than the Red Storm, who are the local draw. Without Felipe Lopez and Zendon Hamilton, new coach Mike Jarvis will look to sophomore Ron Artest and freshman Erick Barkley to try to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
Keeping St. John's alive for at least the first round is always the unstated goal of the NIT committee. The Bulldogs don't amount to much more than a bye for St. John's after losing two-time Big South Player of the Year Josh Pittman.
Missouri vs. Southwest Missouri State - This battle for the Show-Me-State showdown might be the tournament's best first-round game.
Coach Steve Alford's veteran Bears match up well against the younger Missouri Tigers and should challenge for the Missouri Valley Conference Title.
The Tigers will be better one- and two years down the road, but if they can snap a streak of 23 losses on the road, they could challenge for an NCAA berth this year.
Each year as mid-November approaches, college basketball magazines start appearing on newsstands.
Publications ranging from the respected and recognized (The Sporting News) to the ridiculous (Slam Magazine) weigh in on how this year's college basketball season will unfold.
Following is a guide to choosing the best ones. Categories include the magazine's prediction for the NCAA title, as well as highs and lows regarding content, connection to UMass, and cover art.
Sports Illustrated's preview was not yet on the stands and therefore was not included.
A fixture in the preseason hype business, this year's Athlon's retains its usual high standards.
NCAA title: Stanford.
Highs: Predicts the 1999 NCAA and NIT Tournament fields and how far each team will advance. Each school projected to make the field gets a one-page preview. Each conference's order of finish, as well as first through third All-Conference teams, are predicted.
Lows: No top 25 or team schedules (which used to be a staple of the Athlon Preview)... limited coverage of teams Athlon doesn't expect to be post-season bound.
UMass connection: For the second straight season, Charlton Clarke adorns the regional cover, the only magazine that put a Minuteman as lead art ... UMass is picked to advance to the Elite Eight, while the Minuteman frontcourt is ranked fourth in the nation.
Usually more of a football and NBA publication, Lindy's first foray into college basketball is an admirable one.
NCAA title: Stanford
Highs: A full page is devoted to each top 25 team and a half page to every other team in a major conference. An abundance of strong color pictures is speckled throughout.
Lows: A little too much historical stuff for a "preview" magazine at the expense of current material. Some minor factual inaccuracies.
UMass connection: The Minutemen are ranked 18th overall and picked to reach the second round in the tournament...UMass' frontcourt is not among the top 15 and center Lari Ketner is pegged as the nation's 13th best center.
NCAA title: Connecticut.
Highs: There are short features on one player in each major conference. Classic Vitale-isms are prevalent early in the magazine, but not overdone throughout. Vitale's love of the game brightens anything he's associated with.
UMass connection: A small Lari Ketner picture joins UConn's Richard Hamilton on the cover. Ketner is the featured player in the Atlantic 10. UMass is picked as the nation's 10th best frontcourt and Ketner as the No. 3 center.
The Sporting News
Usually among the better offerings, but this is a down year.
NCAA title: UConn.
Highs: Rosters and schedules of all 314 Division 1 teams.
Lows: Very little that distinguishes it from other magazines.
UMass connection: Local fans likely will have some bones to pick with The Sporting News. While UMass has appeared somewhere around No. 20 in most preseason top 25s, the Minutemen land at No. 33 here. Also, the regional cover features UConn (Khalid El-Amin) and Syracuse (Etan Thomas).
The Minuteman frontcourt is not ranked in the nation's top 10 and Ketner is listed as the 13th best center in the nation.
Street & Smith's
One of the longest running preseason guides has produced a substandard issue.
NCAA title: Stanford
Highs: Still searching...
Lows: Poor name spelling and factual inaccuracies. Too many pictures of mediocre players while leaving out the stars. Individual team sections are too basic for most hoop junkies. Wasted space on junior college and NAIA sections.
UMass connection: If you are a fan of the Minutemen first and the game as a whole second, this one is not for you. According to Street & Smith's, the Minutemen won't make the NCAA Tournament while teams like Davidson, Florida International and Auburn earn at-large bids. Ketner and the Minuteman frontcourt are virtually unmentioned.
Preview Sports, Basketball News, Slam Magazine ... Bird-cage liners, at best.