AMHERST -- Bruiser Flint has won 40 games faster than any men's basketball coach in UMass history.
Unfortunately for the Minutemen, none of those victories have come in the NCAA Tournament.
After winning 19 and 21 regular-season games in Flint's first two seasons as head coach, the Minutemen lost in the opening round of the NCAAs both years.
"The big thing this year is we want to get to the tournament and win some games," Flint said.
There's every reason to believe that Flint's elusive first NCAA Tournament victory, and possibly a few more, could come this season. UMass not only returns everyone from last year's team except starting power forward Tyrone Weeks, but the addition of a transfer and three players who sat out last season will make the Minutemen bigger and deeper than ever.
"This is probably the best team I've been on since the Final Four team (in 1995-96)," senior guard Charlton Clarke said.
UMass is ranked in the preseason Top 20 by five college basketball publications, and Athlon Sports College Basketball went so far as to pick the Minutemen to reach the Elite Eight.
The Minutemen should be fresher come tournament time because they won't have the demanding early-season schedule of recent years.
Last season, the Minutemen had separate road trips to Alaska, Kansas and Las Vegas in the opening month.
"The travel schedule was a little ridiculous last year," Flint said. "It hurt us toward the end of the year."
"The traveling wore me out a lot," sophomore guard Monty Mack said. "Sitting on the plane, sitting around all day, your body gets tired."
This year, their only trip west of the Mississippi will be to Texas, and that won't come until the end of January.
Flint said the university cut back on travel in order to reward its fans with more home games, not to rest his players. But the Minutemen are pleased they'll be staying home more often.
"This is where our energy comes from," Clarke said.
The Minutemen will play 14 games at the Mullins Center, four more than last season, and also will play Boston College Dec. 12 at their home away from home, the Worcester Centrum. They've never lost at the Centrum.
Among the highlights of the Mullins Center schedule will be a visit by Kansas on Jan. 16 and the regular-season finale against Atlantic 10 rival Temple on Feb. 28. UMass can take out its frustrations over its NCAA failures on the 10 NCAA Tournament teams on its schedule this season. It also will play eight conference champions, more depending upon how far it advances in the Preseason NIT.
UMass is so proud of its home schedule it printed T-shirts with the lettering, "Where the Big Boys play." It's no coincidence that this is the school's biggest team ever with five players 6 feet, 8 inches or taller.
Lari Ketner, a 6-10 center, won't tower over all of his teammates this season. The roster includes another pair of 6-10 players, Anthony Oates, a transfer from Yavapai College in Arizona, and Kitwana Rhymer, a sophomore who was academically ineligible last season. Both Oates and Rhymer will be counted upon to rebound and block shots.
Ketner led UMass in scoring (15.2 ppg) and was second in rebounding (7.4) in 1997-98, but he realizes he must become more aggressive this season.
"For us to be the team we need to be and the player I need to be, I need to keep the light on all the time instead of turning it off and on," he said.
Ajmal Basit, a 6-9 junior, is expected to replace Weeks at power forward.
Ronnell Blizzard, a 6-8 medical redshirt last season, is more of a perimeter shooter. That's exactly what the Minutemen will need this season. They'll go as far as their outside shooting takes them.
They shot only 29.3 percent in a 51-46 NCAA Tournament loss to St. Louis in March. The starting backcourt of Mack and Clarke combined to sink only 8 of 30 shots. Flint hopes Mack's shooting will be more consistent this season now that he's in better condition.
Clarke was the only UMass guard to shoot 40 percent or better last season and he just barely did at 40.8 percent.
"We won't have to force shots now because there's going to be a lot of double-teaming in the post," Clarke said. "Half the time we should have wide-open shots. All we have to do is knock them down."
Defensive specialist Mike Babul returns at small forward, but he'll be pressed for playing time by Chris Kirkland and Winston Smith. Smith is trying to bounce back after missing nearly all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The microphone echoed with the expectations of Bruiser Flint for the upcoming 1998-99 season yesterday, as the Massachusetts men's basketball coach answered questions from dozens of reporters in the William D. Mullins Center.
Yesterday marked the annual Media Day press conference for the UMass hoopsters, as the squad took one more step towards the season opener at home against Niagara.
"I'm looking forward to another great year," Flint said. "Midnight Madness is on Friday night - we're going to have a pretty good time, and we've got some special things set up. We're ready for a good year. I think we have a pretty good team this year, but we've got to step up and do some of the things we talked about."
"The team has been working hard, and we're getting pretty healthy - Ajmal (Basit) is close to 100 percent," continued Flint. "We're ready to go. I'm really excited."
The daunting challenge facing the Minutemen this year was relayed clearly through the media in attendance: Will UMass make it past the first round of the NCAA tournament this year?
In the previous two seasons, Massachusetts snuck into the post-season bracket, but was eliminated in the opening round, most recently by the St. Louis Billikens in 1998.
"[Losing in the NCAA Tournament] is a good motivational point," Flint said. "Do the guys want to go to the tournament and get out in the first round or do we want to take some games? We don't just want to get to the tournament, we want to get back to the Final Four, and we want to win the national championship."
Whether that's a possibility or not depends on who is answering the question.
Athlon published that the Minutemen were a probable Elite Eight contender and ESPN's college basketball guru Dick Vitale placed them between 15th and 20th, while the Sporting News ranked UMass as low as 33rd in the nation, and fourth in the Atlantic 10 Conference.
Nobody disagrees that Massachusetts should be ranked, though.
"You're ranked because you deserve to be ranked," Flint said. "We got everybody back but one player. We have four of our five starters, and our sixth man back, and we added three or four more guys and got some depth."
Only Midnight Madness this Friday stands between the Minutemen and the beginning of the season now. One month of practice will buffer the team as they head into their Nov. 16 clash with Niagara. A pair of exhibtion games with the Converse All-Stars and Marathon Oil will also give UMass a pair of tune-ups before the official season opener.
AMHERST - The coach has made his team a conditional promise.
As long as the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team protects the ball and pays attention to defense and rebounding, coach Bruiser Flint will let it run and press. To the players, this almost sounds like a new lease on life.
"That's our plan, to run and press a little more," Flint said at UMass media day yesterday at Mullins Center. "We should have more guys we can play.
And now, the qualifying statement, meant to keep it all in focus.
"Playing faster can mean more turnovers, though," Flint said. "And I'm not big on that."
UMass enters the 1998-99 season with a more favorable schedule (14 games at Mullins Center) and the unfavorable memory of a second straight first-round loss in the NCAA tournament. Beyond that 51-46 defeat to Saint Louis, however, was the image of a UMass team that always tried to slug it out in the half-court game and rarely produced easy baskets, a style which worked more often than not but was neither fun to play nor easy to watch.
But this year, players such as guards Jonathan DePina and Monty Mack, and forwards Chris Kirkland and Mike Babul - all of which have the quickness to flourish in the up-tempo game - come back with last season's experience under their belts.
In addition, junior Anthony Oates (6-foot-10), sophomore Kitwana Rhymer (6-10), redshirt freshman Ronell Blizzard (6-8) and redshirt sophomore Winston Smith (6-5) join the mix. Blizzard and Smith missed last season with injuries, Rhymer sat out for academic requirements and Oates was playing junior-college ball in Arizona.
Only graduated senior Tyrone Weeks is gone from last year's 21-11 team, so this year's Minutemen should be deeper and better suited to maintaining a faster pace. Flint decided on it after talking with fellow coaches John Calipari, Bob Hill and Jack Leaman.
The players see the early practices and games as a chance to remove whatever hesitation the generally conservative Flint may harbor.
"If we're successful with run and gun, he'll keep it in," said Smith, who missed almost all of last season with knee problems. "But if we're not, I don't think we will."
"Sounds great to me," Kirkland said. "I think Mike Babul and myself would like to get a few more alley-oops and make it more exciting."
Of course, if Flint hears the terms "run and gun" and "alley-oop" too often, he might take it out altogether. He already sees two potential roadblocks to a more up-tempo style.
One would be turnovers, and the other would be if other teams play zone against UMass, as many did last year. He says it's much harder to run against zones, and only better shooting will force opponents out of them.
"I don't see this as a dramatic change," he said. "And if we don't shoot well against zones, we'll have to go right back to what we did last year, playing the half-court game and walking the ball up."
"We've got to establish to ourselves, and especially to him (Flint) that we can play up-tempo well," Babul said.
Mack said the Minutemen can.
"All my life, I was raised playing pressure defense," he said. I'm glad we're going to something that's comfortable to me."
Power forward Ajmal Basit took time to interject some humor.
"They don't pass me the ball anyway, so it doesn't matter much to me," Basit said.
But after seemingly exhausting themselves for almost every basket last season, the Minutemen believe a quicker game will take some scoring pressure off center Lari Ketner in the low post, and will make the games more fun.
"We want to get out on the fast break and get some easy points," guard Charlton Clarke said. "We don't have to get a lot. Just a couple would be nice."
"I didn't talk to the players about a faster style, but I know it's what they want," Flint said. "It's what players always want."
AMHERST - University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach Bruiser Flint can spend more of his time concentrating on perimeter scoring when practice starts Saturday with Midnight Madness because he shouldn't have to worry about the inside game.
Three Minutemen newcomers should see to that.
UMass could have its biggest team ever with the addition of 6-foot-10 sophomore Kitwana Rhymer, 6-10 junior college transfer Anthony Oates and 6-9 freshman Ronell Blizzard.
"Practices are going to be hell this year but you're going to have to take it," said Rhymer, who sat out last season for academic reasons. "People are going to try and go after everyone and people are going to get dunked on."
The new additions will battle veterans Lari Ketner, Ajmal Basit and Chris Kirkland for playing time in the frontcourt, meaning the practices Flint runs are going to be more physical than ever.
"It should be real competitive but fun," Oates said. "I'm used to coaches stressing hard work."
Rhymer, a native of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, played his high school ball at St. Raymond's in the Bronx, the same school as senior Charlton Clark and former UMass forward Dana Dingle.
Oates, of Phoenix, played the last two years at Yavapai College in Prescott, Ariz., and Blizzard, of Waterbury, Conn., received a medical redshirt last season because of chronic foot problems.
Six players, two positions. Practice won't be for the faint of heart.
"I think it will be good for Lari and Ajmal," Flint said of his prospective starters. "Kit and Anthony are real physical, they bang you and knock you down."
Oates and Rhymer play right into the UMass style of strong interior defense. Both can rebound and block shots and while neither is a polished scorer, hard work and size can sometimes make up for finesse.
Blizzard is a little more athletic than Oates and Rhymer and can knock down the 18-footer, something UMass needed desperately last year.
"We play defense and we rebound, the tough thing for us is we don't score," Flint said. "Defensive rebounding keeps us in games."
And with UMass' size, the Minutemen should be able to get defensive rebounds by accident.
HOME SWEET HOME: For the first time in the Flint era the Minutemen have a schedule that doesn't take the team out of the continuous 48 states and one that keeps them home more than away.
"We just wanted to get some home games actually, and that's for the fans because they deserve it," Flint said. "We've had what, 65 games since I've been here and only 21 home games."
UMass is scheduled for 14 games in Mullins Center, although the game with Connecticut is considered a neutral site contest. The Minutemen could pick up another home game if they beat Niagara in the first round of the Preseason National Invitation Tournament and UNC-Ashville defeats St. John's.
The Minutemen play just 12 road games, 13 if St. John's wins its first-round NIT game. But the furthest UMass has to go is Austin, Texas, for a matchup with Texas on Jan. 31.
CROOKS ON CAMPUS: Sophomore Shannon Crooks, who transferred to UMass from St. John's, must sit out this season under NCAA transfer rules.
The 6-2 guard from Everett played in 23 of the Red Storm's 32 games last season, averaging 1.9 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.0 assists. He is the all-time leading scorer in Everett High School history with 1,743 points.
AMHERST The advertising slogan for the 1998-99 University of Massachusetts men's basketball team states "Where the Big Boys play." The unofficial slogan might read "Unfinished business."
The unfinished business in this case is trying to advance in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. The last two years, the Minutemen got knocked out after one game in the tournament.
"That's a good motivation for them," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said yesterday, during the team's annual Media Day. "Do you want to go to the tournament and be out in the first round, or do you want to go on a run?"
"We know what to do, we know what to expect now," said UMass senior guard Charlton Clarke. "We don't just want to get to the tournament. We want to get there and do something special and this year, we have the team to do something special."
The Minutemen have been working out informally since the start of the school year, but officially get down to work Friday for Midnight Madness at the Mullins Center. The first regular practice is Saturday. UMass plays a pair of exhibition games on Nov. 5 and 11, and opens against Niagara in the Chase Preseason NIT at the Mullins Center on Nov. 16.
UMass is coming off a 21-11 season, but a loss to George Washington in the second round of the Atlantic 10 Conference post-season tournament, and a first-round loss to Saint Louis in the NCAA Tournament put a damper on what had been considered a good year.
Flint has four starters returning, with only Tyrone Weeks having graduated. There are only two seniors, Clarke and center Lari Ketner, among the regular rotation, and three newcomers are moving into the frontcourt.
Ketner, Clarke, guard Monty Mack and forward Mike Babul are back this year. Also returning are veteran reserves Chris Kirkland, Ajmal Basit and Jonathan DePina. Basit is slated to move into Weeks' old starting slot. New to the team are 6-8 redshirt freshman Ronell Blizzard, 6-10 Proposition 48 sophomore Kitwana Rhymer and 6-10 junior college transfer Anthony Oates.
"We're talented at every position. We're at least three or four men deep at every position," said the 6-foot-10, 268-pound Ketner. "Playing with them in pickup games, I can't wait to see how practice and games are going to be."
"We have a lot more size and depth," added Mack. "Teams will play us down low, and that'll give a chance to get more good looks at the basket."
Ketner (15.2 points per game), Mack (12.8) and Clarke (12.6) were the top three scorers last year. Basit and the newcomers are going to have to pick up some of the rebounding slack created by the absence of Weeks' 10.2 boards per game.
The Minutemen also have Winston Smith returning. The redshirt sophomore missed all of last year after having knee surgery.
"They're a year older. They know what to expect. From their freshman to their sophomore year, they really didn't know, they had never really played," said Flint. "They've been in some big games, some tough times, some tough spots. Now, we're hoping that can carry over to this year."
UMass has its typical tough schedule. Kansas and Connecticut, two teams that have been perennial Top 20 clubs, both come to the Mullins Center. Flint also said to watch out for the Atlantic 10. George Washington, Temple, Rhode Island and Xavier all made the 1998 NCAA tournament.
"This is the best it's ever been. I said that last year, but it's even better this year," Flint said of the A-10. "You're talking about five teams with four starters back and seven teams went to post-season play last year. You're talking about that again.
"It's not like it used to be. I always tease Cal that he got out at the right time. We used to count the wins in the past. Now you can't do that," he added. "That only makes it better for the league. People are starting to give the league some respect."
The Minutemen are looking for some additional respect, the kind that comes from a lengthy stay in the NCAA Tournament. The players are looking forward to getting started.
"I can't wait until Saturday. I can't wait until practice," laughed Ketner. "Midnight Madness is nice for the fans and everything like that. But I'm waiting for the three-hour practice the next day."
Up close with Lari Ketner, Jerrey Roberts, Daily Hampshire Gazette, photo
AMHERST - While it likely won't be compared with Jerry Tarkanian's late 1980s UNLV Runnin' Rebel teams or Tom Penders' early '90s Texas teams, the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team plans to run, and run a lot, on the court this season.
UMass coach Bruiser Flint explained the thinking behind the move at Tuesday's media day at the Mullins Center.
"You know who I talked to about that?" Flint said. "Jack Leaman, John Calipari and (ex-San Antonio Spurs coach) Bob Hill. Bob came and spoke at my camp and I said to him, 'I'd like to open it up a little bit.' So we sat down and talked about some things. We pretty much ran the same structured break that Cal ran. So I asked John, 'why did you open it up when you got to the NBA?' He said it opens up this thing and that thing.
"Players want to run that way anyway," Flint continued. "They think that's the way they play on the playground."
The chance to run caused the eyes of the Minuteman small-forward unit to light up.
"If we play an up-tempo pace, that will benefit me a lot more. I like to get my points in transition, run-and-gun style," said junior Mike Babul at Tuesday's media day at the Mullins Center.
"That's how I was in high school. That's how I scored all those points. If that's the case, I think the offensive output has a chance to go way up, but as far as a set offense, I'm setting all the picks. I was never a jump shooter. I was always a slasher. I was always going to the basket."
Fellow junior Chris Kirkland was a crowd favorite last year, partly because of his leaping ability, a skill he'll get to exploit more on the run.
"I would love to run more," Kirkland said. "That would feed into my game a little bit better. I'd be very excited about it. I think running more, there's going to be a lot more open chances for me and Mike and Winston to have the shot."
* * *
While most new players have to get used to the school's environment and academics, Arizona native Anthony Oates was adjusting to something else.
"It's getting real cold," he said of the recent 65 degree temperatures. "I don't know if I'm making the adjustment. I got a bunch of sweaters, but I have to get a winter coat as soon as possible."
The WMass media gets to know Anthony Oates, Jerrey Roberts, Daily Hampshire Gazette, photo
He may have trouble finding one as most stores likely don't stock them in his size. Oates checks in at 6-foot-10, 270 pounds.
Despite the weather change - it was above 90 Tuesday in Phoenix - he's enjoying New England so far, seeing leaves change color for the first time.
"In Arizona it's like one minute you have leaves and the next minute you have no leaves," Oates said. "This is different. I'm looking forward to seeing all four seasons. I've never seen all four seasons before. I figured everywhere was like Arizona, two seasons, hot and cold."
* * *
While Oates is big, senior Charlton Clarke is a little smaller this season.
"I lost weight and kept my strength up," he said proudly. "I worked at the ABCD camp. I was a counselor. One thing they have for counselors in the morning is you get to work with NBA coaches. George Karl was the ring leader and they taught us some of the pro game. They told me things that would help me throughout the season and maybe later on in the future.
"They told me I should try to lose some weight and I did that," Clarke continued. "They said if I lost some weight and got a little quicker I could have some chances."Flint was pleased with Clarke's conditioning.
"He's been working his butt off in terms of conditioning. He's been running hard and that's good to see."
AMHERST - Last season only two publications selected the University of Massachusetts in their preseason Top 25 basketball polls. It appears perceptions have changed, even though the Minutemen lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament last March for the second straight time.
Most prognosticators believe the Minutemen, who return all but one player from a 22-11 squad, will be much improved with a year of experience. Four publications pick the Minutemen among the best 25 teams in the land, including Athlon College Basketball, which has them advancing to the NCAA Elite Eight.
You might think this would be cause for concern for third-year coach Bruiser Flint. Not at all.
''You get ranked because you deserve to be ranked,'' said Flint yesterday at UMass Media Day. ''We've got everybody back but one player.''
Flint loses starting power forward Tyrone Weeks from last year's team but will field one of the tallest squads in UMass history. The Minutemen have four players 6 feet 8 inches or taller, including 6-10 senior center Lari Ketner, a Sport magazine second-team preseason All-American.
Forwards Ronell Blizzard and Winston Smith, who redshirted last season, also return, making the 1998-99 Minutemen one of the deepest teams in school history. UMass kicks off its campaign with a Midnight Madness practice Friday.