MHERST - If the 1999-2000 University of Massachusetts men's basketball season wasn't one in which dreams were realized, it was one in which improvement was shown.
Modest improvement, perhaps. But one reason Bruiser Flint is hoping he'll be retained as coach is his conviction that some of this year's unfinished business will be completed if he and his program are allowed to stay the course.
In short, he thinks UMass is on to something good again.
"This year will help us out a lot," Flint said after Thursday night's 66-65 National Invitation Tournament first-round loss to Siena. "The experience we gained will make us that much better. I think our talent level will take a big jump next year."
The 17-16 season and NIT berth left a better taste than the 1998-99 season, which ended with a 14-16 mark, no postseason play and bad chemistry.
This year's record, while unspectacular, included the first trip to the Atlantic 10 semifinals in Flint's four-year tenure. And the team was unified, causing Flint to call it his favorite group since taking over in 1996.
Given the talent level, it may have been unrealistic to expect a much better record. Flint is convinced that first-year starters Shannon Crooks and Kitwana Rhymer, and freshman center Micah Brand, made major strides during the season and will make more next year.
But the Minutemen are also pinning their hopes on a recruiting class that depends largely on whether Flint will be back. Forward Raheim Lamb, whose Boston English High School team plays St. John's of Shrewsbury for the Division I state title tonight, and acrobatic 6-foot-4 guard Jameel Pugh are signed.
But point guard Anthony Anderson and former West Virginia combo guard Jarrett Kearse have given only verbal commitments. Power forward Jackie Rogers of Barton Community College in Great Bend, Kan., has been waiting to see what happens with the coaching situation.
All three could go elsewhere if Flint is gone. If Rogers signs, UMass believes it would have two true power forwards, the other being 6-8 Eric Williams, a Syracuse transfer who sat out this year.
With Rhymer also back, the newcomers might help restore the rebounding strength that, without a true power forward, was often absent this year. Kearse could be used at point guard, though Crooks is still considered the starter and Jonathan DePina also returns.
The best news among the returnees is that Monty Mack is on schedule to graduate this spring. If he does, the 6-3 guard will regain the year of eligibility he lost for academics as a freshman, and Mack — who is already attracting some NBA interest — says he'll be back.
"That's why I didn't want the other seniors to go out this way," he said after the NIT loss. "I get another chance, but they don't."
UMass loses 6-6 seniors Chris Kirkland and Mike Babul, and little-used 6-10 center Anthony Oates.
"It was disappointing to go out the way we did, but I definitely feel we had a better season than last year," Kirkland said.
Winston Smith and Ronell Blizzard will have to fight for playing time next year, but Smith, in particular, played well in the postseason.
Flint knows that even if he's back, the goal won't just be improvement, but the NCAA tournament spot that has eluded UMass for the past two years. Sensing a gradual turnaround, he wants the chance to finish what he thinks began this season.
"I think we got a taste of getting back to where we wanted," he said. "I'm looking forward to next year, because I think we have a chance to be pretty good."