WORCESTER - When UMass coach Bruiser Flint woke up yesterday morning, he fully expected to see center Lari Ketner at a quick pregame practice and certainly expected the 6-foot-11-inch senior to play in last night's Commonwealth Classic against Boston College.
But when you are dealing with Ketner, there is a surprise lurking around any corner.
For the 7,172 fans who came to the Centrum, that surprise came at the start of the game when they found Ketner not in his game uniform but in gray sweat pants and sweatshirt.
The word from Minutemen officials was that Ketner was serving a one-game suspension for violating team rules.
Maybe it's time to extend that suspension beyond just one game. As Ted Koppel said in one memorable interview with Michael Dukakis, ''Governor, you just don't get it.''
Nor does Ketner. How hard is to show up and play hard every night? How hard is it merely to show up?
Clearly the education process is not working for Ketner in terms of what his reponsibilities are regarding the UMass basketball team.
Captains are supposed to play, not watch.
People at UMass are still buzzing at Ketner's line against College of Charleston: 5 points, 0 rebounds, 1 blocked shot. No rebounds?
Flint asked the same question, which is the primary reason Ketner did not start the next game against Marshall.
After a heart-to-heart talk, Ketner started and responded with his best game of the season, scoring 15 points, pulling down 6 reounds, and blocking 3 shots in a 59-54 loss to UConn Wednesday.
It was the upside of Ketner's game, which, when it's good, can be as good as that of most players in college basketball.
The Minutemen did not need Ketner in last night's 75-45 romp over Boston College.
But that is not the point. There are going to be times this season when the Minutemen will desperately need Ketner's skills and his size. They will need him to win a game for them.
As one of the captains of the team, that is a fair request. Does Ketner care what the fans think, what the media think, or what his teammates and coaches think?
Maybe not. He's not just fooling around with a few games or even a season here. He's screwing up a career, which, when the NBA ever gets back to playing basketball, could pay him millions.
At 6-11, Ketner falls under the planet theory of basketball, meaning there are only so many people alive on the planet that size who have the skills to play basketball at the highest level.
Ketner has shown that. What he has not shown is the desire or maturity to allow anyone to feel any sense of confidence in him.
Count on Ketner? Not even Flint knows what to think anymore. ''I'm not sure what more I can do,'' Flint said after last night's game. ''At some point, he's got to step up and take responsibility for his actions.''
Flint says Ketner will be back for Tuesday night's game at Villanova. He made it clear that the door is still open to Ketner. Maybe sitting out a game in which Ketner clearly could have padded his numbers and boosted his confidence will serve as a lesson that will be learned instead of ignored.
Maybe not. Last night, while his teammates played, Lari Ketner's only contribution was standing up, waving a towel around his head, and cheering for his teammates during timeouts.
UMass already has enough cheerleaders.
What it needs is its captain.
What it needs is someone it can count on when the margin of victory isn't the only unknown after 10 minutes of a game.
Lari Ketner hasn't shown that he can do that for any extended period.
And that is a shame.
The perils of youth have apparently come to roost on the sizeable shoulders of UMass center Lari Ketner.
In short, this season has not started in a way the senior big man could have wanted. He has not played well. He has been benched and then sent into a game as a reserve. He broke a team rule last week and was promptly suspended for Saturday's win over Boston College.
For a kid with an NBA career on his mind, this doesn't seem to be the way to approach one's senior year.
``In a lot of ways, Lari is maturing,'' UMass coach Bruiser Flint said of Ketner's strange month. ``We're still dealing with kids, in a lot of ways.
``I told him that a lot of things are going on out there right now, but he knows. He reads the papers. He knows there's some pressure on him,'' said Flint. ``He's a nice kid who sometimes has to mature. The expectations are sometimes a little too high.''
It has been said that Ketner's main problem is his uncommon size. A 6-foot-10, 285-pound center with Ketner's skill is supposed to dominate a game to a far greater degree than the senior has demonstrated.
Then again, perhaps everyone is aiming too high, including Ketner. His media day observation that, ``I don't want to disappear in games this year'' has not yet been answered.
``He said that before any games were played, though,'' said Flint. ``It's about handling pressure. The one thing I saw (against UConn) was that when we needed him to play big for us, he did.
``I'm always telling him the story of Marcus Camby,'' he said. ``The year after we lost Lou Roe, John (Calipari) and I were like, `Damn, what are we going to do now?' I took Marcus out to lunch and said to him, `Do I need you to be the man every night? No. But I need you to be the man sometimes.' ''
Flint is making the same request of Ketner.
His next opportunity will come in Philadelphia, his hometown, tomorrow night against Villanova.
The Wildcats feature 7-1 center Rafal Bigus, who was one of Ketner's chief rivals on the Philadelphia high school scene.
The matchup bodes well for Ketner, if only because he has historically played better against guys who are his size or bigger.
As players like the College of Charleston's Jody Lumpkin have proven, smaller players give Ketner the worst time.
``The one thing Lari has to get better at is his conditioning,'' said Flint. ``He gets double-teamed every night, and in our league he's the biggest person out there, which hurts him.
``But he can pick us up. Last year, when we hit the skids, he was actually the player who picked us up,'' said Flint, who still believes the same will happen again, once Ketner finds some sort of groove.
``It's like I've told everyone,'' said Flint. ``I've won 42 games and been to two NCAA tournaments. Without Lari, I'm not sure we would have done that.''