AMHERST - The position is called small forward, but its importance is not small.
"It shouldn't be how much playing time each guy gets, but how much they contribute," said University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach Bruiser Flint, surveying a crowded competition at small forward, where four players are vying for time. "And my thing is, everybody can help."
Everybody, in this case, includes juniors Mike Babul and Chris Kirkland, redshirt sophomore Winston Smith and redshirt freshman Ronell Blizzard. The intriguing aspect of this quartet is that with the exception of Blizzard - who can also play power forward - all are about the same size, but all of the four offer different traits.
"Ronell can shoot, and that's something we need," Flint said. "He gives us an option we haven't had. He can force the other team to spread out their defense."
The 6-foot-8 Blizzard was given a medical redshirt after encountering foot problems last year, and he is untested as a collegian. But Flint hopes his presence gives UMass a perimeter option at small forward, a spot the Minutemen have generally used for rebounding and defense, but not outside scoring.
"Winston adds energy," Flint said of the 6-5 Smith, who was also medically redshirted after having knee surgery last year. "He runs and dives and hustles, and he looks great, much better than I expected at this point."
And then there are the incumbents, Mike Babul and Chris Kirkland. Both are 6-6 and about 205 pounds. Both should benefit from Flint's plans to play a more up-tempo game and both complemented each other well last year. Babul was the defensive stopper, with Kirkland the emerging, explosive offensive threat.
The small-forward position (or 3-spot, in basketball parlance) seemed to disappear from the offense at times after Kirkland, Babul and Smith arrived as freshmen in 1996. Then it disappeared entirely when Flint shelved the 3-spot in favor of a three-guard lineup.
Smith had been the early leader, starting six of the first nine games. But he's had only one start since then and played only three games last year (39 minutes) before shutting it down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
"Last year was tough for me," Smith said. "I tend to get down on myself, and I had to keep pushing myself not to do that, and also not to get out of shape. But I like that we're going to play a faster style, because that's been my style since I was a little kid."
Babul started every game last season, a reward for his skill at shutting down opponents' scoring stars. His own average rose from 1.5 to 4.1 points per game, and he showed offensive life in midseason before fading again at the end.
"I worked on lifting and ball-handling, and a ton of shooting this summer," he said. But he still isn't expected to score much, while Kirkland's mindset seems more geared to offense.
Kirkland is not a spot-up shooter, but he can roam the baseline and if his ball-handling improves, score in transition.
"Lari Ketner is our offensive leader, but we have to do our share, too," he said. "What's going to happen when he's hurt, or is out of the game?"
Flint thinks there's room for all four, especially if the 218-pound Blizzard plays some power forward. But with only 40 minutes of small-forward playing time to delegate each game, there won't be room for all four every night.
"Some nights it will be Mike, or Chris, or Winston or Ronell," Flint said. "You put people in certain spots. As long as they know their roles, I'm not worried about that."