Time of Torment
His final season at Massachusetts has been no fun for Lari Ketner
By Mike Jensen, The Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer, 1/23/1999

UMass will go as far as Lari Ketner takes it.

Every preseason college basketball publication that Ketner picked up seemed to have variations on those words.

Or these: Ketner, a potential NBA lottery pick. . . .

But instead of soaring and carrying his Massachusetts team along with him, Ketner, the 6-foot-10, 285-pound strongman from Philadelphia's Roman Catholic High, went into a funk. And, until recently, the Minutemen had struggled right along with him.

UMass, which will play today at Temple, has had to win four of its last five just to get to 8-8. Meanwhile, Ketner's scoring average has dropped from 15.2 points per game last season to 10.3 this season.

But statistics don't accurately express the senior center's misery.

"I could see it in my teammates' eyes," he said. "I was supposed to be this all-American and all this other stuff. I was putting a lot of stress on myself. I was making things worse. I wasn't having any fun at all. It was real bad. I thought about quitting the team."

This is the flip side of the glory of college basketball.

The back cover of UMass' basketball media guide shows "All-America candidate Lari Ketner" dunking the ball, with Julius Erving's retired UMass number in the background. It talks about Ketner's ability to dominate in the paint. It doesn't mention that he is a sensitive 21-year-old.

As his game fell off, Ketner started getting booed at UMass' Mullins Center, where the fans had forgotten what it was like for the Minutemen to lose to anything less than nationally ranked opponents.

In a home loss to Iona on Jan. 5, Ketner played just 18 minutes before fouling out in the second half, having taken three shots and scored four points. In the previous game, a win over Virginia Tech, he had scored just two points.

In the second half of that Iona loss, Ketner sat on the bench and let the tears flow. He didn't try to hide his head in a towel.

"I just cried on the bench," Ketner said. "The team was there. The coach was there. It was real tough.

"It was before then that I wanted to quit. I think, after the Iona game, after I let everything out, put everything on the table -- after that, things changed."

UMass coach Bruiser Flint had been on him hard, telling him: "The pressure's not on you to perform. The pressure's on you to prepare. Be ready mentally."

"He absolutely just wasn't doing it," Flint said.

While Flint thought he understood the root of the problem, he was surprised by the extent of it.

Ketner had started the season with a strong game against Niagara, but then had struggled in a loss to St. John's and immediately begun pressing.

After the victory in the opener, losses piled up. There were four in a row. Ketner played just 13 minutes and took just two shots in a loss at the College of Charleston. He played 20 minutes before fouling out in a shocking 88-66 blowout defeat at Marshall.

The morning after the Iona defeat, as the 4-7 Minutemen were getting ready to board the team bus to go to Fordham for their next game, Flint held a team meeting that ending up lasting about 3.5 hours. The Minutemen were supposed to practice when they got to New York, but they got there so late, they just held a walk-through at their hotel.

During the meeting, Flint had the players talk about where they thought things stood and how they felt about each other. Ketner got a lot off his chest.

"Lari was pretty emotional in the meeting," Flint said. "Then and there, they saw how much this meant to him. They were a little shocked at how he reacted."

Ketner said: "I think they thought -- a lot of people thought -- I was probably worrying about going to the next level, thinking about the NBA, stuff like that. Once they realized how serious I was about winning and how much pressure I was putting on myself to carry the team so we could win. . . . The other guys on the team are helping me out, doing their role, making it easy for me."

"The guys told him," Flint said, " 'We don't need you to be a one-man team. We're not a one-man team. Be a presence.' Since that day, his demeanor is so much different, even in practice. The last 10 days, he's got a little pep in his step. I can see the difference away from the court."

Ketner said that before shedding those tears during the Iona game, "I held it all in for a long time. I didn't have anybody to talk to. You have the coaches there. But you can only say so much to the coaches. Their thing is they want you to perform, stuff like that. I mean, they care for you as a person. But I'm not the type of person that talks to people about things like that. At the time, I felt alone."

Except during games. The double- and triple-teams he has seen have made him tentative. He says that in the games in which he has been guarded by one player, he has done well. But the small, quick teams that run multiple defenders at him have gotten inside his head.

On Jan. 16, against a Kansas team that didn't double-team him much, Ketner scored 15 points, and UMass beat the then-15th-ranked Jayhawks, 64-60.

Of course, Flint points out that Ketner saw a lot of double and triple teams last season and wasn't floundering against them as much.

Despite his turbulent season, Ketner is still definite NBA material. He was on the verge of making the United States' Goodwill Games team last summer until he suffered a pulled hamstring. He spent a lot of time over the summer playing in Philadelphia with Rasheed Wallace, Jason Lawson, Theo Ratliff and other Philadelphia-based pros. They told him he had a pro body and a pro game.

"They say a lot of the things I do on the box, when I play against them, I can't get away with in college, because [college defenders] help out a lot and they play zone," Ketner said.

One draft sheet, the Chapman Report, now lists Ketner as a likely late first-round selection. NBA scouts want to see more from him.

One scout who saw Ketner in a 63-55 UMass victory over St. Joseph's on Wednesday night, when he totaled nine points and five rebounds in 25 minutes, thought he looked disinterested.

Ketner disputes that, but he knows that he still is not where he was last season, when he had his share of big games but still had the label of being inconsistent.

"Now I've been more conscious [that] when I get the ball, I look first," he said. "Last year, I just caught it and shot. That's probably the main difference why they say I'm disinterested. I'm catching it, looking [before] I shoot it, making sure I'm not getting double- and triple-teamed. It's not that I'm less interested than I was last year. It's just that I'm more cautious now."

On one hand, Ketner said, "it's tough. I watch other all-Americans play -- [Duke's] Elton Brand and all them -- I watch the supporting cast they have -- it's hard."

But Ketner praised his own teammates for stepping up when he had struggled. He said that guard Monty Mack had carried the team a lot of nights, and that [forward] "Chris Kirkland's having a great season."

Against St. Joe's, point guard Charlton Clarke made five three-pointers in the first half -- as many as he'd made in the last seven games.

Flint said that Ketner's troubles weren't the only topic of discussion at the marathon team meeting.

"We weren't a team," Flint said. "We weren't playing as a team."

Right after the Fordham game, UMass went to St. Bonaventure, a notoriously tough place to play, and lost, 53-50. Since then, the Minutemen have beaten Duquesne, Kansas and St. Joe's. Today will be another test.

In the last minute of the St. Joe's game, Ketner passed a different kind of test. A Hawks fan in the second row started screaming at him, yelling: "Nine points. That's really something for an NBA player! . . . You're a stiff, Lari!"

Ketner heard the abuse. He turned and smiled at the guy. He had put himself through so much in the last month, he wasn't going to be bothered by a heckler.

"He probably would have two weeks ago," Flint said.

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