UMass: Bench shines
By Ron Chimelis, The Springfield Union-News, 12/20/1999

Any team playing three games in three days will be looking for help from the bench.

And the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team, which faces such a schedule in the Puerto Rico Holiday Classic, saw signs Saturday that help may be available.

In a game highlighted by Monty Mack's 30 points, the 69-60 Orange Bowl Classic win over Florida State also displayed a UMass team that received contributions from all 10 players it used, a well-timed display as the Minutemen (5-3) prepare for tomorrow's 4 p.m. tournament opener against Southern Illinois.

"Micah Brand did well, and Anthony Oates and all the other guys were excellent, too," forward Chris Kirkland said.

Brand played 14 of his 17 minutes in the first half after starting center Kit Rhymer picked up two early fouls. The second foul came against 6-foot-10 Nigel Dixon, a freshman compassionately listed at 350 pounds, but believed to be much heavier.

"When he came in, it seemed the whole game shifted," Rhymer said of Dixon, the heaviest player in Atlantic Coast Conference history.

UMass coach Bruiser Flint called on Oates, a seldom-used 6-10, 285-pounder who was his best option to match Dixon's pure expanse. Oates played only 1 minute, but in that time, he grabbed a rebound and neutralized Dixon, saving Rhymer and Brand for more conventional matchups later.

UMass wound up with a 40-33 rebounding edge, a remarkable statistic considering that Florida State started a front line of Ron Hale (6-9), Oliver Simmons (6-8), and David Anderson (7-0), with Damous Anderson (6-7), Justin Mott (6-10), Rodney Tucker (6-7) and Dixon off the bench.

UMass also received strong floor play from Mike Babul, who played 26 minutes in his first non-starting role since his freshman year. Other than missing one start to accommodate the team's five seniors on Senior Day last year, Babul had started 68 straight games.

Taking Babul's starting spot was Ronell Blizzard, and while Flint said he was satisfied, Blizzard cost himself minutes with foul trouble. He had four fouls in 12 minutes, and has committed 19 in 64 minutes this season.

But Flint seems comfortable with a starting lineup of Blizzard, Rhymer, Kirkland, Mack and Jonathan DePina, who was unflappable at the point and may have wrested the starting spot from Shannon Crooks for good.

Just as Blizzard has been hampered by fouls, Crooks has been dogged by poor shooting 33.8 percent this season. He also has more turnovers (25) than assists (23), but he plays superb defense and may be more useful off the bench.

Forward Winston Smith (four points in nine minutes) also played well Saturday. But for all the depth, Florida State coach Steve Robinson said the difference was Mack, who converted 12 of 12 free throws.

"In the first half, we were able to slow him down," Robinson said. "But in the second half, he made the plays he needed, and he also got to the line."

The class of the Holiday Classic field is considered to be Tennessee, which UMass could meet in Wednesday's second round. The rest of the field includes North Carolina-Charlotte, Tulsa, Illinois-Chicago, Boston College (which UMass beat 74-67 Dec. 4, and could meet again in Thursday's final round) and the American University of Puerto Rico.

Win or lose against Southern Illinois, UMass would play either Tennessee or American-Puerto Rico in the second round, making tomorrow's quarterfinal with huge Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) implications.

Playing Tennessee would strengthen UMass in the RPI category, which is used to determine NCAA tournament qualification. Playing American-Puerto Rico would have no value at all, because that college plays most of its schedule against other Puerto Rican teams and is not an NCAA member.

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