AMHERST - Bruiser Flint doesn't want to jinx his team or get carried away, but he admits he's feeling an emotion that doesn't come easily for him.
"I've still got my voice, so practices must be going pretty well," the University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach said as the Minutemen prepared for tonight's preseason opener against the Converse All-Stars at Mullins Center. "Practices have been easier to run than they used to be."
This is the first of two preseason games for UMass, which opens the regular season at home against Niagara Nov. 16. The second exhibition is Wednesday against Marathon Basketball.
Flint said the reason for better practices is simple. His players are older and more experienced, and they've known from the outset what was expected of them.
"My back isn't aching anymore after practice, from having to show guys how to do things," he said. "I can tell them to do something, and they know what to do."
One thing UMass plans to do is pick up the tempo, and tonight's game is the first chance to test the new style. Flint said practices have been going well, but playing a quicker pace should get a better test against Converse, a team of ex-college players looking for pro jobs.
"We were counting on a lot of new guys last year, and when you have freshmen out there, they throw the ball all over the place and not always where you want it," Flint said. "But they're older now. In a way, the team and I have grown up together, because a lot of them came here when I took over (in 1996)."
Two players may not see action. Junior guard Monty Mack has a hand injury, and sophomore forward Kitwana Rhymer, who sat out for academic rules last season, has a tender ankle.
Mack cut his left hand on a piece of glass recently, requiring 13 stitches. The injury is not related to Sunday's campus fight in which his name was linked. Rhymer twisted his ankle in practice.
Injuries aside, Flint has liked the tone of the practices. He said center Lari Ketner has accepted the leadership role that goes with being the marquee player, and guards Charlton Clarke and Rafael Cruz showed up in much better shape this fall.
"I used to tell Charlton we had Natrone Means (the rotund Chargers' running back) playing point guard, but he came back 15 pounds lighter," Flint said. "It's like he's in a new body. And I asked Rafael how much he paid for that chest. It's obvious these guys did their off-season work."
Flint has also been encouraged with 5-foot-9 sophomore guard Jonathan DePina, whose outside shooting has improved vastly.
"He came back to school with a jumper," Flint said. "Now I just hope he can knock a couple down in the games, to keep people honest."
Converse is coached by Mickey Walker, who brought a team that called itself Team Fokus to Niagara Tuesday night. That team lost 110-104, and it's expected to be the same team that shows up at Mullins, though the nature of these touring teams is that no one can be sure who will show up until gametime.
New UMass players expected to see action include 6-10 junior college transfer Anthony Oates, a junior, and 6-8 redshirt freshman forward Ronell Blizzard. Redshirt sophomore forward Winston Smith (6-5), who missed all but three game last year after knee surgery, has also returned.