Athletic Minutemen aim for NCAA
By Matt Vautour, The Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff Writer, 11/17/1999

AMHERST - The 1999-2000 edition of the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team barely resembles its predecessor of a year ago. Gone are the halfcourt bruising Minutemen, whose offense was based on pounding the ball inside to the center.

Jon DePina virtually disappears between Winston Smith and Ronell Blizzard.
In its place is a quicker, more athletic group that coach Bruiser Flint hopes will take UMass back to the NCAA Tournament, beginning with its season opener at Iona Saturday.

Following is a position-by-position look at the team.


After Lari Ketner's difficult season in 1998-99, the Minutemen will get a fresh start in the pivot.

After showing great promise a year ago, junior Kitwana Rhymer will be the starter. An athletic player for his size, Rhymer's strength will be on the boards. The bulk of his offense will come on offensive rebounds. In the final exhibition game this season he grabbed 17 boards to go with 15 points.

Freshman Micah Brand and senior Anthony Oates will come off the bench. Brand showed flashes of promise during the preseason. His athleticism and soft hands make him a viable offensive option off the bench, although his slender build could give him problems on defense.

Oates is third on this depth chart, but he'll give the Minutemen some bulk, which could be much needed against bigger opponents.

Power forward

Senior Chris Kirkland can expect to be on the floor for significant minutes this year as UMass' only experienced power forward. He's undersized at the position, but after being inserted into the starting lineup last year he more than stood his ground. In the final seven games of the season he averaged 18.1 points per game as bigger power forwards struggled to cover him.

Enigmatic sophomore Ronell Blizzard will be the top backup at this spot. Blizzard has shown impressive talent and athleticism at times, but his work ethic and dedication have been questioned. In a pinch, Flint said he might use Brand at power forward as well, but that could put the Minutemen in a dangerous situation in terms of foul trouble.

Small forward

If he's healthy, senior Mike Babul will resume his starting role, but a strained muscle in his back hampered him in the preseason. He could flourish offensively in the more up-tempo style, while reprising his role as defensive stopper on the opponent's top offensive player.

Behind Babul will be his roommate, junior Winston Smith, who could play more than at any time since joining the Minutemen. He will start if Babul isn't healthy and will be guaranteed minutes in UMass' new pressing (and tiring) defensive setup.

At times during the preseason, Flint used three guards, eliminating the small-forward spot, a move he could be tempted to make again this season.

Shooting guard

If the stress fracture in his foot has healed, senior Monty Mack likely will return to his iron man minutes (37.8 per game) of a year ago. He's UMass' most polished scoring threat, especially in a half-court set, and its only reliable outside shooter. Any dropoff from him, injury or otherwise, would be a blow to the Minutemen.

When Mack is off the floor, junior college transfer JoVann Johnson could step in. Johnson is a decent shooter, but the strength of his game is slashing to the basket and using his leaping ability to finish near the rim.

Sophomore Shannon Crooks, who sat out last year after transferring from St. John's, often will move over to the two-guard spot in Mack's absence as well.

Point guard

With Mack, healthy, Shannon Crooks will be the point guard and the key to the Minutemen's running attack. He will be asked to score more than some of UMass' recent point guards. He needs to avoid turnovers and poor shot selection, especially from the outside, while taking advantage of his ability to drive the lane and create opportunities for the Minutemen in traffic.

Nobody was more thrilled about Flint's decision to increase tempo than junior Jonathan DePina, who starts the season behind Crooks. After a strong preseason, his new-found confidence could make him the most improved Minuteman.

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