A winning agenda: Flint tries to rebuild at UMass
By Mark Murphy, The Boston Herald, 11/20/1999

The present-day gap between some coaches and their kids is wide enough to warrant the occasional call to a sports psychologist.

But James ``Bruiser'' Flint trusted himself enough this summer to realize many of his players were returning from 1998-99's distasteful campaign with an excessive amount of baggage. They belonged to the first losing UMass men's basketball team in 10 years, the first not to play in the NCAA tournament in eight, and the first not to play in a post-season tournament of any sort in 10.

The ``kids'' didn't need much prodding.

``We found out about how they felt about certain guys,'' Flint said this week, while preparing for tonight's 1999-00 season opener against Iona. ``They more than agreed with us on the way things happened, and what was wrong. A lot of what happened last year concerns how we felt about each other. Forget about playing with each other. We just hated being with each other last year.

``We had agendas,'' he said. ``Guys were concerned about who was going to be on TV, who was getting in the papers, and who was getting called out to the media room after games.''

What's gone, as much as what's left, will inevitably play a role on this team, then. Flint has decided to open up his offensive attack after three years of watching center Lari Ketner - now on the Chicago Bulls injured list - regress as the reluctant focus of a post-oriented attack. Charlton Clarke, sometime leader and sometime disruptive force, is now trying to catch on at some level as a point guard. Ajmal Basit, kicked off the team last year when his wiseguy act finally annoyed a solid majority, is now sitting out a year at Delaware.

Flint doesn't want to disown this trio. He was particularly close with Clarke - almost like an on-campus father - and still talks with Ketner. He attempted to help Basit find another program even after their final verbal clash in the team video room.

But there's no doubt that all three were responsible when the team immediately took on water last December.

Enter Shannon Crooks, the Everett High-via-St. John's transfer who is probably the closest thing this team has had to a point guard since the 1995-96-vintage Edgar Padilla. Enter Micah Brand, a mobile 6-11 freshman who has been a pre-season surprise. Brand was so confident during the team's first exhibition game against the California all-stars, he repeatedly slashed to the basket and then hit all 10 of his free throws.

Figure in a much-improved Kitwana Rhymer at center, Mike Babul's defense, and power forward Chris Kirkland's continued development as an off-the-dribble scorer, and the potential is there for

Yes, Monty Mack is still the only Minuteman with a jump shot, as well as the player who will ultimately make or break this team. He is also recovering from a broken foot, and his starting status tonight thus a game-time decision.

But if nothing else, Flint senses a quick opportunity to sweat the remaining poison out of this team's system.

Don't think that Monday's game against UConn, in Storrs, doesn't loom as a giant prize. Then again, Iona brings flashbacks of its own. The Gaels handily beat the Minutemen last winter in the Mullins Center. The lowpoints were almost too plentiful to recall.

``I just want to get back,'' said Flint. ``We're not slipping.''


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