Minutemen seek some senior leadership
By Ron Chimelis, The Springfield Union-News Staff, 12/31/1998

AMHERST - The slide really began last season, after the win over La Salle lifted the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team's record to 19-6.

Since that 81-71 victory on Valentine's Day, the Minutemen are 5-11, including 3-6 this season. No game seems like a sure win anymore - not Saturday's Atlantic 10 opener against Virginia Tech at home, not even next week's games against Iona and Fordham.

As the Atlantic 10 season beckons, the program that rose to fabulous heights this decade now finds itself teetering on the precipice of disaster, a team of well-regarded players who might have to improve simply to scramble up to the level of mediocrity.

"The same thing happened tonight that's happened all season," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said Tuesday night as he ripped his team after the Minutemen's 75-66 overtime loss to Davidson. "We've talked about making plays all season.

"Stepping up and making a free throw, grabbing a rebound, making a shot. But we've had no leadership, nobody stepping up to make a play."

Tuesday night's problems seemed to multiply as the game progressed. UMass was atrocious in the second half at the foul line, missing nine of 10 in a stretch that saw a 47-35 lead shrink to 52-47. Chris Kirkland missed a dunk. Lari Ketner missed nine of 15 free throws.

The offense, which had been effective in the first half, deteriorated with ill-time turnovers and again proved itself vulnerable to zone defense, which the Minutemen will probably face in a steady diet this year.

Davidson coach Bob McKillop said his team showed tenacity. He didn't say that UMass was lacking in that quality, but it was.

"One of our themes for the past three weeks has been chip away, chip away, keep chipping away," McKillop said. "Look at the clock, and look at the score. A 15-point lead was now 10, and 10 was now 5, and all of a sudden, we were going for a tie."

As the lead dissolved, the UMass personnel decisions also met with disappointing results. The three main offensive threats (Monty Mack, Ketner, and Charlton Clarke) shot a combined 16 for 37, even including Mack's 7-for-8 first half.

Kitwana Rhymer, one of the few players to show improvement this season, played only six minutes. Rafael Cruz didn't play until the overtime, when he was thrown in to produce quick points for a team that felt the game slipping away.

Ronell Blizzard didn't play at all, another sign that Flint's preseason optimism about him has vanished. Same with center Anthony Oates, who struggled in the early season and has become a virtual non-entity in the rotation.

Beyond that, Flint was clearly angry with his own team, and the team, which was not available for postgame comment, has shown little sign of relating well either to the coach or to each other, at least in basketball terms.

Flint said he's been disappointed by senior leadership, even including Clarke, who has generally been exonerated from blame on the matter of intangibles. Asked if all his seniors were to blame - since Ketner has already been castigated for inconsistent play - Flint said nobody was faultless.

"Well, I've only got two (scholarship seniors)," the coach said. Clarke's numbers Tuesday (12 points, six assists, one turnover) weren't bad, but he failed to create offense by attacking the basket as he had against Detroit in his previous game.

Even McKillop said he sensed that UMass lost confidence as shots and free throws didn't fall, and the 6,506 fans went from a state of first-half satisfaction to skepticism, then disbelief, then anger.

"They heard that, and they didn't want to hear the groans again. They felt failure," McKillop said.

It's been a frequent feeling this season, and the UMass team chemistry seems shot, if it ever existed. Even Flint concedes the season, and the team's image of itself, is hanging in the balance.

"It's sad," he said. "I asked the guys - is this the way they want to end it?"

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