Outlook upbeat for Minutemen
By Ron Chimelis, The Springfield Union-News Staff Writer, 3/7/1999

AMHERST - Today is Selection Sunday, an unofficial Western Massachusetts holiday since 1992. But Bruiser Flint won't be perched in front of the television set, watching the NCAA men's basketball tournament pairings to see where his University of Massachusetts team will be sent.

"I'm going recruiting," Flint said after Thursday's 72-68 Atlantic 10 quarterfinal loss to Xavier had ended a season that, given the expectations which preceded it, might rank as the most disappointing in UMass basketball history.

Not since 1989 has UMass been left out of both the NCAA and National Invitation Tournament fields. Not since 1991 have the Minutemen not been among the 64 teams in the NCAA tournament.

And the fans who saw a steady, sometimes breathtaking climb to prominence under John Calipari have reacted not only by staying away from Mullins Center, but making sure their criticisms - aimed mostly at Flint - are coming through loudly and clearly.

At 33, the three-year coach is at the center of what is probably the most passionate sports debate in Western Massachusetts. Did UMass go through a year that athletic director Bob Marcum - who views questions about Flint's job security as "ridiculous" - says almost all programs endure?

Or are the Minutemen sliding back to the lackluster losing days before Calipari, unlikely to regain their winning touch unless a change is made with the coach?

"The great thing about sports," Marcum said, "is that you can turn it around next year." But can UMass?

Armed with Marcum's public support, Flint has begun trying to sort out what went wrong. A team ranked 24th in the preseason Associated Press poll finished 14-16, the first losing season since Calipari inherited a moribund program in 1988 and went 10-18.

But expectations were minimal in 1988. Flint doesn't dispute that this year's team, which lost only Tyrone Weeks from the 21-11 club of the season before, had enough talent to win - and didn't.

He thinks UMass ruined its chances for a good season largely because it couldn't shoot. The Minutemen were 11th among 12 Atlantic 10 teams in scoring, and last in free-throw shooting.

"That killed us," he said. "You can't expect to stop the other team every time down the floor."

Internal bleeding
* What also hurt, however, was that for the first time in over a decade, the Minutemen seemed to come apart from within. Several team meetings took place, but not until the end did UMass seem to play with a common purpose, a turn of events that Flint admitted caught him by surprise.

"It tried my patience, for sure, because we struggled with team chemistry," Flint said. "That surprised me, and it opened my eyes."

On Feb. 9, Flint dismissed junior Ajmal Basit, who he considered disruptive, from the team. If chemistry was a problem for most of the season, inconsistency was, too.

"We tried almost everything (to motivate)," Flint said. "You'd wonder if you were going to get the same guys you got last night."

Flint said he's now more aware of the need for patience.

"If you go berserk, so will the kids," said Flint, adding that for all its problems, UMass still wasn't far from being pretty good.

"We were only out of really one game this year, Iona," he said. "Even Marshall, where we lost by 22, was close in the second half."

The Minutemen lost nine games by six points or less, and another to Davidson in overtime. They nearly upset Connecticut and beat Kansas, Xavier and Temple.

But the nature of some losses - home defeats to Fordham, Davidson and Iona among them - horrified fans who responded by either booing or staying away. The average home attendance was 6,723 in a building that seats 9,493, and for the finale against archrival Temple, the crowd was 7,782.

Losing support?
* At $20 a ticket, 2,700 empty seats per game translates into $54,000 lost per night, though variables would affect that figure. Those economics are important to a school that does not have Division I-A football, and relies on men's basketball for revenue.

Assistant athletic director Dennis Toney said that for 1998-99, UMass sold about 4,940 of its 5,200 season tickets. He knows it will be a harder sell next year.

"That (4,940) was actually a bit better than last year, when we sold a bit under 4,900," Toney said. "But I'm sure we'll have to market our tickets all summer this year."

Beyond ticket sales, a losing team is also sounding alarms with donors. Marcum claims alumni support hasn't softened yet.

"Our number of total donors is down a bit, but the amount of dollars has remained pretty consistent," he said.

"I can't say we're not concerned," associate athletic director John Nitardy said about alumni donations. "There's no question we'll have to work a little harder. Concern, yes - but panic, no."

Nitardy said alumni pledges have topped $1 million, and are running a bit ahead of last year. He said ticket sales may be affected more, and suggested scheduling may have to be examined.

"We didn't really give the students a chance," he said. "The first two games (a Preseason NIT game against Niagara, and the UConn game) were games they had to pay separately for, and they're not used to that. The next was Detroit, and we were on winter break."

"And by January," Nitardy said, "we were struggling."

Tuned to situation
* The UMass radio network is also watching the situation closely. WHMP station manager Marc Vandermeer said a one-year slump can be absorbed, but admitted his optimism is based on the slump lasting only one year.

"It's still the biggest game in town," said Vandermeer, who is also the play-by-man man at Northampton-based WHMP, the flagship for a UMass network of nearly 20 stations. "Even when they're losing, UMass basketball is all people talk about."

Vandermeer said ratings will not be available for about a month, but that ratings for Flint's first two seasons didn't vary much from the levels for the 1996 Final Four team.

"One year won't ruin anything," Vandermeer said. "But even so, I'm sure our presentation skills (to advertisers) will have to be better."

As for TV revenue, Marcum thinks next season is solid.

"We know we'll have Texas on TV, and Villanova," he said. "I'm sure we'll have Temple on TV."

Where everyone (including Flint) agrees is that to reinvigorate interest, the team must win. And it must win frequently, since Flint's first two seasons (40-25 with an 0-2 NCAA tournament record) didn't satisfy all the fans, though they satisfied the administration enough to reward him with a two-year contract extension.

That extension commits UMass to Flint through the 2001-02 season. The school could buy out the contract, which calls for a base pay of $135,000 per year but is estimated at approximately $400,000 per year, including incentives.

But Marcum's support is echoed by basketball people who have been asked about Flint's struggles.

"That team is still playing hard," George Washington coach Tom Penders said after beating UMass 78-72 Feb. 17. "And that is a tribute to Bruiser Flint."

Positively productive
* There were a few bright spots to a depressing season. Junior forward Chris Kirkland (19.5 point average over his last six games) blossomed to the brink of stardom. Junior guard Monty Mack (18.1 ppg) is already there, and sophomore center Kitwana Rhymer showed flashes of excellence.

Rhymer is expected to replace Lari Ketner, whose puzzling year reflected his team's season. Ketner was at various times chastised, suspended and benched by his coach.

But Flint also insisted that Ketner, who shot 42 percent (nearly 12 percent below his career average) and averaged 10.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, should not shoulder total blame. The other senior, point guard Charlton Clarke, struggled with knee and foot problems, was also benched in late-season games and shot a disappointing 37 percent.

Other players were inconsistent at best. Mike Babul faded offensively, though he was named to the Atlantic 10 all-defensive team. Anthony Oates, Flint's first UMass junior college transfer, and Ronell Blizzard rarely played.

Jonathan DePina's struggles ruined Flint's plans of more three-guard offense with DePina, Clarke and Mack. The offense became predictable and stale, at least until Kirkland emerged as a scorer.

And no one could pinpoint why UMass seemed to play down to the level of the opposition.

"I don't know why," Kirkland said. "But I think we'll learn, and be mentally ready next year."

"I'd never been on a losing team before," Babul said. "It was very difficult."

Interest still there
* Flint concedes January surges in each of his first two seasons may have lulled the players and coaches into thinking it was bound to happen again.

"We've been spoiled here," he said. Now he's on the recruiting trail, insisting quality players have not tuned out UMass.

"Unless you're Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina or UCLA, kids care mostly about playing time," said Flint, who has already signed 6-foot-11 Micah Brand of Milford Academy in Connecticut.

"We don't need to bring in someone who can dominate, but we need somebody who can score, and we need a guard," Flint said. It's evident, though, that a coach who has never wanted to rush new players wants help - now.

"If a high school kid can give us immediate help, we'll take him," said Flint, who is also scouring the junior college ranks.

One important ally in the recruiting world is Boston Celtics head scout Leo Papile, a director and coach with the Boston Amateur Basketball Club, which gives Flint an inroad to the pipeline of Boston talent UMass needs.

"The senior class in Boston wasn't strong this year, but the sophomore class was one of the better ones in the country, and they're all high on UMass," Papile said. "The kids seem very positive on the image of the school."

The UMass point guard next season is expected to be Shannon Crooks, who sat out this season after transferring from St. John's. With Crooks, Flint wants to revisit the idea of a more up-tempo game, a plan that fizzled almost immediately this season.

Staff concerns
* This season's troubles have raised inevitable questions not only about Flint but the staff of John Robic, Geoff Arnold and Mike Connors. Marcum gave no indication of staff changes, which would be wrenching in that Robic is an 11-year staff veteran, and Arnold was Flint's college teammate and is a close friend.

But neither has reached the stature Flint or Bill Bayno held on Calipari's staff, though one question of Flint has been whether he tends to take on too much of the recruiting and strategic duties himself.

UMass may have also missed former assistant Tony Barbee, who went to Wyoming. Barbee (and to some degree, Weeks), had provided a trusted buffer between players and coaches.

The players, however, have spoken supportively of Flint. Mack, for one, said the coach should not be blamed if players don't execute.

Flint knows, however, that the coach will be blamed. Sympathizers point to Denny Crum's 12-20 record at Louisville last season as proof that a bad year can happen to the best of them, though the case of Mike Deane (fired at Marquette Friday after his first losing season in five years) provides a cautionary message.

Flint knows a second straight losing season would intensify criticism he knows is already out there. Against heavy public skepticism, he said this season's dip does not signal the end of the UMass success story, or a return to the losing legacy Calipari inherited 11 years ago, and overcame.

"The people who think UMass is about to drop off the face of the map - well, they're crazy," Flint said. "We're not that far away, and we'll be back. I'm not worried about that."

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