ark! Listen! There are noises coming out of the gym as the UMass Minutemen practice. And they're unfamiliar noises, happy noises. Shouts of encouragement have largely replaced last year's screams of frustration and anger, it seems. Slaps of resounding high-fives can be heard in place of the low blows that the moody prima donnas disguised as basketball players dealt out to each other all too often during the nightmare season of 1998-99.
"There can be no doubt about the fact that last year's team had terrible chemistry," UMass Coach Bruiser Flint says, a huge smile engulfing his face. "And that was true both off the court and on the court. In fact, you could safely say that if players don't get along with each other off the court, it will affect the team's performance on the floor."
Which is about as good a reason as any for UMass' 14-16 horror show last season. It all came together in one horrendous heap: Super-talented forward Ajmal Basit was also a superpain, an uncomfortably quirky combination of charm, selfishness and anger, who finally got himself tossed off of the team in mid-January. Senior quarterback Charlton Clarke, the putative team leader who saw himself as a major NBA prospect for some reason, was either whining, underachieving or injured. (Or, at times, all of the above.) Huge center Lari Ketner, who was a major NBA lottery prospect, was thinking too much on the floor instead of just reacting, worked with the weights too little, and ate his way right into Italy, at best. Guard Rafael Cruz, who has now transferred out of the program, was miffed about not playing more. Shooter extraordinaire Monty Mack had some legal tussles off the court.
And so on, and on and on, ad infinitum.
Better teams than UMass -- say, Michael Jordan's six-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls -- would have crashed and burned carrying such burdens. So the Minutemen, who were supposed to be a very good team -- UMass was nationally ranked in the preseason in all polls and was seen as a major NCAA contender -- had all the chance of an itinerant icicle in Hades to accomplish anything meaningful with such goings-on going on.
Still, because there was some serious talent out on the floor for UMass, the team did beat nationally ranked Temple and Kansas and played most everyone else close, losing no fewer than 10 other games by six points or less (and another in OT by nine). Unfortunately, close is no cigar in college hoops -- not when you're supposed to be one kind of a national powerhouse, anyway.
"We were big, not very athletic and a little too slow," says Flint, referring to the fact that last year's Minutemen played stand-around, pound-it-in, smashmouth hoops in an era of run-'n'-stunning greyhounds. "Sometimes it even looked like we were not that interested in going after the ball. But most of the time we were just simply too slow to get there."
The personality and style of this year's team could be the complete opposite -- and this much-anticipated "brand new life" at Amherst will not only be due to the absence of the deadly slow Ketner, the rigor mortis-ing Clarke and the terminally ticked-off Basit. Though the absences of those egos will come in very handy -- and the fact that this new group of kids like each other enormously is indeed a major plus -- there are two other essential factors at play here. Firstly, there are no expectations this time around -- nationally, conferencewise or anything-elsewise. Unlike last year, when the national polls sat like a vast weight on the players' shoulders, no one expects much out of UMass this season. Which, ironically enough, lifts a powerful burden and may actually lead to much more both in the way of performance and won-lost record.Still, such psychological factors can only make a meaningful difference if there is some talent out on the floor. And this year's Minutemen have some talent -- some very major talent, in fact. Mack, who finished fourth in league scoring last year at 18.1 ppg, is a supremely versatile shooting guard with a natural knack for the hoop. And 6-foot-7 power forward Chris Kirkland, after Basit's banishment thrust him into the starting limelight, averaged 18.1 ppg. and 9.7 rpg. over the last eight games and emerged as one of the best players in the conference as well.
"The conference? I'd like to know who played better than him in the entire country," Flint remarks.
Even better, while those two stars seem plenty to (re)build upon in a greatly dehydrated Atlantic 10 this season, there could be a number of other players on the roster who have the potential to explode.
If they're put into a system that best fits their talents, that is.
"I assure you that that is exactly what's going to happen," says Flint. "We're going to significantly speed up our style of play this year. It's not just that most kids enjoy playing that way, but, more importantly, that's the type of talent we seem to have on the roster this time around. And if that's the case, any smart basketball coach would have to adjust."
After watching UMass look like the players were slugging through the mud with extra-large army boots on over the last couple of years, we'll believe that when we see it. (And maybe not even then.) Still, if the stylistic freshening does come to pass, the bouncy Kirkland, waterbug third-guard Jonathan DePina and thinny-thin swing forward Ronell Blizzard would benefit hugely.
And, consequently, so would the team.
The live-legged Captain Kirk, with more possessions in the running game, could put up downright otherworldly numbers up front. The quicksilver 5-foot-9 DePina, who seemed entirely lost in the set-up game at times last season, could scoot all over the place, make a total pest out of himself on both ends of the floor and display spectacular penetrate-and-pitch talents in a far better fashion. And the wiry Blizzard, who at 6-foot-8, 190 pounds seems to disappear in the half court game among all those trunky trees, could become this year's Kirkland-esque surprise in the run and gun style.
"He can put the ball on the floor, handle and shoot astonishingly well for a 6-8 guy," says Flint. "But yes, you have to put him into the open floor in order to get the best out of his talent."
Ketner's place in the pivot will be taken by 6-foot-10 Kitwana Rhymer, a punishing bouncer who was one of team's very few pleasant surprises last year.
"Frankly, when he first got here I did not think Kitwana would ever play much," says Flint. "I was kind of just doing a favor for his high school coach by taking him on. But, almost right away, he was showing some great things to us in practice. And then he started to do stuff in games."
Stuff like stuffing 21 shots, using his exceptional rise and timing. Stuff like going through a stretch over six games (!) without missing a single shot. And like yanking down 10 rebounds and scoring seven points in just 17 minutes of play against Boston College.
Rhymer is now the entrenched starter in the middle, ready to do a bang-up job on Atlantic 10 centers who still barely know his game. "I'm very comfortable with him replacing Ketner," says Flint. "Kitwana is a hard worker with a great ethic who will only get better and better."
Rhymer will be aided ably in the middle by 7-foot rookie surprise Micah Brand who's been just about dominating in practice. "Lots of skills there," says Flint with a satisfied smile. "Micah's already an outstanding offensive player. He just needs more strength." Others on the staff, even more ebullient, see Brand, who averaged 15.0 points and 9.0 rebounds in high school in Middletown, N.Y., as the natural successor to Marcus Camby and Ketner as UMass' "next great center."
The small forward spot should be well-manned by devastating defensive denizen Mike Babul (5.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg), but his lack of offense could give another newcomer, 6-foot-3 junior college swingman JoVann Johnson, plenty of opportunities to play. "Johnson is an all-around player and a natural scorer as well who attacks the basket with a passion," says Flint. "He's so solid in all phases of the game that he should get a lot of time for us."
Another newcomer, 6-foot-2 combination guard (and St. John's transfer) Shannon Crooks could even start. "He has a great advantage in that he's been practicing with us all last season," says Flint. "So he knows what we want out of him. And he's been giving all of that to us, and more."
Crooks is bit of mystery because, after a stalwart high school career at Everett High School (where he averaged an incredible 26 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists a game), he seemed totally out of sorts -- not to mention out of shape -- for a frustrating year at St. John's.
"He just didn't fit in there because they wanted a pure point guard," says Flint. "Plus he had some personal tragedies that year -- his Dad passed on -- so he had trouble concentrating on basketball. Shannon is a scoring point guard who's really good at creating his own shot. And, fortunately, that is exactly what we need here. I'm telling you right now, his St. John's experience doesn't mean a thing. Shannon has a chance to be a very special player for us."
That could be a real key for the Minutemen, because, should Crooks reach his powerful potential at the all-important point guard position, UMass could become a special team this year. Yes, the Minutemen, following all that underachieving nastiness last season, could (not-so) miraculously morph into one of the nation's most overachieving squads. Indeed, all the necessary factors -- a weaker conference, the absence of expectations, and good talent on the floor that gets along with each other off the floor -- are present for an intriguing season at Amherst.