AMHERST -- Jonathan DePina was among the most criticized members of the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team at the end of last season, with the majority of that scrutiny focusing on the freshman guard's shooting struggles.
While it was a far cry from a game situation, being crowned co-champion of the three-point contest at Friday's Midnight Madness was enough to put a smile of the sophomore's face.
DePina knocked down eight treys in 15 shots from three different spots to tie senior Charlton Clarke for the event's title. Last season's top long range gun, Monty Mack, was off the mark hitting just six.
The 1998 version of the now annual event brought the largest crowd ever to the ceremonial start to practice.
"Our Midnight Madness is bigger than most people's," said Minuteman coach Bruiser Flint, who begins his third season as the head coach of the program. "Kentucky gets 25,000, but we do pretty well compared to a lot of people."
With people arriving around 10:30, there were several events before any Minutemen even showed their faces. Several people dressed as fans of Boston College, Connecticut and several other UMass opponents taunted the crowd before being soundly beaten by the two Minuteman mascots.
As both of the clock's hands inched closer to the top, the lights dimmed and WHMP's Marc Vandermeer introduced each member of the team.
When the players joined the pack, the trademark mosh pit of chest bumping and pushing ensued.
As Clarke stepped out from the tunnel, his teammates lined up and saluted their senior captain. Before Lari Ketner's name was even called, fans began chanting his first name, a chorus usually reserved in Massachusetts for a certain native of French Lick, Ind.
After Flint appeared to cheers and indoor pyrotechnics, a UMass ROTC student rappelled from the roof with a basketball to officially start the event.
NCAA rules will keep St. John's transfer Shannon Crooks from suiting up until the 1999-2000 campaign, but he can practice this year and he showed UMass fans a glimpse of what they can expect from him.
Dunking with ease despite being only 6-foot-2, Crooks earned himself a trip to the finals of the slam dunk contest finals with two-time defending champ Mike Babul.
Mike Babul gets ready to jam.
Jon DePina: the little guy can still get up there.
|Kevin Gutting, Daily Hampshire Gazette, photos|
The team returned to the gym Saturday morning and twice on Sunday to begin more rigorous preparation. The Minutemen's first exhibition game against the Converse All-Stars is Nov. 5.
AMHERST -- Used to be that just seeing the players was enough to captivate fans at Midnight Madness but those days are long gone.
In front of a loud crowd that mostly filled the William B. Mullins Center, basketball practice essentially started for the 1998-1999 season.
A female ROTC student rappeled from the ceiling at midnight to officially commence the event that included fireworks, dance teams and a dunk and shooting contest.
Real practice starts at 10 a.m. Saturday with a Bruiser Flint promise of plenty of running. With the NBA lockout in full effect, former UMass coach John Calipari will be visiting the Minuteman practice.
While the older players weren't overly excited for Midnight Madness, senior Charlton Clarke recognized the value of connecting with the fans.
"This is for the fans to help get them excited for the season," Clarke said. "With all the home games we have this season, it will be important to have the fans behind us."
It won't be long before UMass fans can see their team in action. UMass' first exhibition game is Nov. 5 against the Converse All-Stars.
AMHERST - Since his first Midnight Madness two years ago, the slam dunk champion crown has sat on Mike Babul's head, and as he heads into his junior season, he has no intentions of relinquishing the crown tonight at the Mullins Center.
"They're all killing me on that one. They're saying this is the year..." Babul said at Tuesday's media day.
The "they" Babul is referring to is mostly Chris Kirkland with some Ronell Blizzard mixed in.
"Chris is saying he wants to win it, this year, but I'll win it. I've got what it takes," said Babul, who then made reference to the Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson basketball movie. "White men can jump. You can't beat the white boy."
Kirkland has other ideas.
"I guess I'll have to show him then," Kirkland said flashing a mischievous smile in Babul's direction, two tables over. "I'll just go out there, get the crowd into it and have some fun."
Neither player has yet choreographed his routine.
"I don't having anything mapped out yet," Kirkland said.
"I'll just create it that night," Babul said. "I'll just go out there and do something crazy."
While Kirkland and Babul jawed jokingly with each other, Blizzard lobbied for dark horse status.
"I was a little nervous last year and I missed two of my dunks," Blizzard said. "But with a year under my belt, Mike can expect a challenge this year."
Blizzard wouldn't reveal what slams he might try, but smiled furtively. "I have a few," he said.
New big man Anthony Oates wasn't sure whether he'd be in the contest, but he promised that if he does, his rim-rocking style might be a threat to his pogo-stick-legged teammates.
"I may have to reach into my bag of tricks and pull something out. Maybe try to tear the rim down," Oates said.
The experts are mixed on who the winner will be.
"It'll be Mike Babul, of course," said senior guard Charlton Clarke. "He always gets the cheers."
"I've got my money on my man Blizzard," senior center Lari Ketner said. "He's got some stuff."
"Can I jump over you?" Blizzard asked Ketner, who politely shook his head no.
There will be more to the night than just dunking. Oates, along with transfer Shannon Crooks and walk-on Darryl Denson will be introduced to Minuteman fans for the first time.
To make the introductions more interesting to the viewing audience on Channel 40, video screens will show each player's highlights while WHMP's Marc Vandermeer introduces the players
Channel 40's Scott Coen will be the program's master of ceremonies and will serve as host of the Bruiser Flint TV show this year. Former host Mike Ratte is working in Boston.
There also will be a three-point or hot-shot shooting contest.
Pregame events will include the introduction of the women's team and several contests and giveaways for fans.
Most of the tickets for the event have been claimed, but unless the building fills to capacity, fans will be able to get in at the door.