t's painful and enraging at the same time to watch a big-time college basketball coach sit helplessly on the bench with his head buried in his mitts while his highly rated team drops repeatedly into the dumps. It's painful, because anyone who's not a recent graduate of the Marquis de Sade Basketball Institute wouldn't want to see another human being in such a state. But it's also enraging because, you might think, with all the money that guy is making -- why doesn't he do something about it?
Last season, UMass' Bruiser Flint could have been the poster-coach for the "head in the hands" look. "It was just one of those years," he says, still reeling from the 14-16 horror that morphed the pre-season Top 25-ranked Minutemen into the single most disappointing team in the country. "Really, what can I say except it was just one of those years?"
Sound lame? Shoot, unless you're very familiar with the fickle fortunes of college hoops, a statement like that -- following a season like that -- probably passed "lame" in your book twenty miles back, nearing a downright Clinton-esque level of spin. Except, it's true. Even the most talented college basketball teams -- far better ones than last year's Minutemen -- can run into a season once in a while when everything seems to go bonkers all at once. First, things go wrong. Then it snowballs. Next thing you know, it's out of control. And not even the most able coaching staff can figure out why.
Or, for that matter, what the heck they can do about it.
It probably all started to go wrong for UMass before the season had even begun. "I think I jinxed the team over the summer, when I said that 'If Lari Ketner plays well we'll be real good -- but if he doesn't, we'll struggle," says Flint. "Lari simply didn't want to, and was not able to, handle the pressure of carrying the team and auditioning for an NBA career as well. Worse, he needed to deal with some unexpected family problems at the same time. And for such a nice guy -- maybe too nice a guy -- it all just became too much."
UMass' second-best player, all-essential point guard Charlton Clarke, started out the year in a slump, got frustrated out of all proportion, and just as he began to play better, suffered an injury that pretty much ruined the rest of his season. And power forward Ajmal Basit, who indeed had eventual NBA potential, thought he was a superstar already -- and that he should be treated like one. "He simply would not accept his role on the team," says Flint. "So, unfortunately, we had to part ways."
That left UMass with three of its top four players mired in a mess. And with the line between winning and losing so very thin in college hoops -- even with all the negative stuff, UMass lost eight games by five points or less -- that's more than enough to turn any potentially premiere team into a frustrating failure.
Not surprisingly after such a "Titanic" disaster of a season, rumors were rampant about Flint's dismissal. But they stayed just that: rumors. "My A.D. told me to just ignore them," says Flint. "He said 'to fire a guy who made the NCAAs the past two years would be absurd.'"
But will next season be any different? In fact, if things turn out as they should for a change, it could be a totally opposite type of a year for the Minutemen. "Without Ketner and Clarke, not much will be expected of us," says Flint. "But, I'm quite certain we'll be a better team."
"Maybe even a much better team."
All positive coachspeak aside, UMass indeed seems rather primed to become one of those "addition by subtraction" outfits. "Maybe we won't have quite as much talent," says the coach. "But sometimes that's not such a bad thing." In other words, instead of a team of characters, the makeup of the roster suggests that UMass could become a team with character.
That's the type of team the Minutemen used to be, before this past year's disaster; the type of team where the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Why it could happen is because most of the bad apples, and weak-character links, have been weeded out by graduation and/or dismissal. Plus, the talent should not be nearly as bad as the experts seem to think.
"Monty Mack will return, without question, as one of the very best shooting guards in the country," says Flint. "And Chris Kirkland proved over the last 10-15 games last season that he's an all-conference-caliber forward."
"Chris was a huge surprise," Flint admits. "In fact, after not much was expected of him, he turned out to be everything Basit was supposed to be."
But with all the newfound recognition thrust his way all of a sudden, could Kirkland turn into another Basit off the floor as well? "No way," says Flint. "Chris is blue-collar all the way, a kid who was barely rated and came up the hard way. He has great character, with no pretensions whatsoever. Kirkland just wants to win, that's all."
But that will not be all for UMass up front next season; 6'11" Kit Rhymer could be a heck of a find. Still, to expect the inexperienced second-year junior to become another Ketner in the middle may be not much more than a ridiculous pipe dream. But some feel he could become an even better player.
"Rhymer does have a tremendous work ethic," says Flint. "Last year he shocked us. Since no one else was recruiting him at all, we actually thought we were just doing (Rhymer's high school coach) Gary DeCesare a favor by putting him on the team. But Gary told me 'you watch, he's going to surprise you.' And he turned out to be one fantastic raw talent with a great upside."
Rhymer and Kirkland will be supplanted solidly on the front line by defensive devastator Mike Babul and talented 6'11" rookie Micah Brand. Brand, who grew seven inches in the past two years, "has guard-like skills with the ball," according to Flint.
Another potentially major contributor, muscular 6'3" St. John's transfer Shannon Crooks, "can play either guard position and play it well," says the coach. Two star caliber junior college players, 6'7" power forward Sean Coleman and 6'5" two guard DeMarcus Minor , visited the UMass campus this past weekend and the signs are good. "People close to them told me that if they have a good visit, they'll sign with us for sure," says Flint.
So, a lot of promising pieces should be in place for next season -- especially for a team with such (allegedly) scant promise. "It's just a feeling I have, right here in my guts," says Flint. "I think we'll be much better than last year. College hoops is a funny game, isn't it?"
It sure is, coach. And UMass fans are surely ready for some laughs.
Tom Kertes has been a basketball columnist for the Advocate*Weekly Newspapers, The Village Voice, Inside Sports, and other publications.