AMHERST - At precisely 12:01 a.m. Saturday morning, Lari Ketner enters a new phase of his basketball career, one he has not always seemed terribly eager about.
He says he's ready, and the destiny of the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team, which opens practice with Midnight Madness at Mullins Center Friday night, could be determined largely by whether he is.
"I'm going to try to lead by my actions, by doing the right things and leading in practice," said Ketner, the 6-foot-10 senior center who finds himself in an undeniable role as leader, even though he has always preferred to be recognized as simply a loyal part of the team. "Charlton (Clarke) is a lot louder than me, anyway."
Ketner and Clarke are expected to be introduced as captains, a role which has always seemed to suit the fiery Clarke, the final holdover from the 1996 Final Four team. But for Ketner, who sat out that year to meet freshman eligibility rules, being the center of attention is not something he's sought, or trusted.
But this is his final college season, and Ketner knows he's in a leadership role whether he's officially announced as a captain Saturday. He's expected to be a first-round pick in the 1999 NBA Draft, possibly as a lottery selection. He averaged 15.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game for last year's 21-11 team, and he's too good to be viewed simply as part of the UMass tapestry any more.
"I like to let the game come to me," Ketner said. "But I feel I have to be a lot more aggressive this year. I have to demand the double and triple teams. I need to keep the light on all the time."
Coach Bruiser Flint says Ketner doesn't have to change his personality in order to lead the team.
"Not every captain has to be vocal about it," Flint said. "Sometimes you just have to be the best player, the guy always working hard in practice. That's what Lou Roe did here.
"I told Lari he didn't have to be a rah-rah guy," Flint said. "And I told Charlton that he can't be talking all the time, either. Charlton is a great kid, and I love him, but he's got to do it on the court, too."
It is a fascinating pair of seniors, because Clarke is willing to talk enough for both of them, and Ketner is willing to let him.
"I want to leave here on top," Clarke said. "I want to go out a winner. We want to go to Tampa for the Final Four."
Clarke also doesn't think Ketner should have to lift UMass onto his 270-pound frame all the time.
"There were games last year we'd let it go down to the final two minutes, and let Lari try to take over," Clark said. "I think we learned from that."
Meanwhile, Ketner's attitude about being a go-to guy remains ambivalent, though more aggression remains his goal.
"If the other guys want to help me out," he said, "that's fine."
One guy did. Despite unexceptional 40.8 percent shooting, Clarke averaged 12.6 points last year and showed a flair for rising to the occasion. He has responded to Flint's challenge by losing 10 pounds, and he's ready for more challenging defensive assignments.
The expectations for Ketner are much different. Athlon College Basketball magazine ranks him among America's top five centers, and Sport magazine made him a preseason second-team All-America. He is the single biggest reason UMass has been ranked in the preseason top 25 in most publications.
"I really don't feel the pressure," he said. "I felt terrible about losing to Saint Louis (in last year's NCAA tournament first round), because I felt we had a lot more to give, but psyched ourselves out.
"I felt I didn't do as much as I could have done, either," added Ketner, who entered the Saint Louis game by averaging 21.4 points over his previous five contest, but was held to eight.
To avoid a rerun, Ketner is thinking like a team leader. He and Clarke asked Flint to consider housing the players in hotels before home games, to keep the Minutemen from getting lazy during a home-laden schedule.
When the season is over, Ketner expects to go to the NBA. But for now, he says he is willing to lead UMass, in his own way.
"I'm still the same guy," he said. "Everybody asks me about the NBA. But right now, I'm just worried about us."