hile the 17-16 Minutemen did indeed manage a higher level of mediocrity this season -- a modestly winning record and the first round of the NIT -- it still didn't amount to all that much when compared to UMass' recent glory years (they went 206-64 from 1990-98, with six NCAA appearances and one Final Four). "No question about it, we have to change the perception of the program," admits coach Bruiser Flint. "I think this season was a good beginning, a definite change in direction, toward that goal. But starting next year, with the better talent we'll have, we aim to get to that next plateau. Which means getting back into the NCAA Tournament."
"And then we aim to further build on that."
This year's team, to be brutally frank, may not have been frankly brutal night after night, but it was still the least talented group UMass has had in a long time, winning (more than) its share of games on basic hard work, hustle, and defense. "It was my favorite team I've ever coached," Flint says. "The kids worked hard, played hard, gave me everything they had."
Which stood in stark contrast to the previous year's overly talented, and underly achieving, pain-in-the-butt prima-donna crew, one that could drive Mother Teresa to distraction with all that bilious bickering, selfish jealousy, and constant lack of hustle.
"All year, other coaches would tell me I was looking so much younger and happier," Flint smiled. "And all year I was telling them, "you are not kidding, bro."
Still, a limited team winning a limited amount of games does not suffice for too long in today's "what have you done for me lately?" college hoops ambiance. Especially not at Amherst, where the expectations are so avidly aroused.
So Flint, in spite of some circumstances truly outside of his control over the last couple of seasons, began to feel the pressure. "We had a little easier time during the Marcus Camby years," he says. "The Big East, our greatest recruiting rival, was not taking partial qualifiers during that time, so we had a better shot at getting better players. Then, perhaps, some high school coaches also wanted to see what I could do as a head coach myself before sending us their players."
"But by now they know what we are trying to do here, that the kids have a good time, that they get a great education, and that we can win," he adds. "So I think we are ready to take a step up in terms of talent."
In fact, Flint feels he has already begun to reach higher with this year's incoming recruiting class. So, in spite of losing premiere power forward Chris Kirkland and defensive stalwart Mike Babul to graduation, he thinks he can have a better, deeper, and far more physically gifted team next year.
It might even be a dangerous-to-any-opponent, NCAA Tournament-caliber team.
Kirkland, though outstanding in his own way, was too-small for a power forward, and therefore somehat responsible for the team's too-timid rebounding. His replacement, Syracuse transfer Erick Williams, is a 6-9, 242-pound punisher who can fly out of the gym and will willingly rearrange your face at a moment's notice. "[He's] a big-bodied big-time player who could dominate in the Atlantic 10," Flint says. "He's been practicing with us all season. And kicking you-know-what."
The coach has also brought in some of those "higher level freshmen" he must succeed in corralling on a regular basis. "Jameel Pugh, a 6-4 shooting guard with astonishing atheticism, was rated as one of the top 10 players in California," he says. "And Raheem Lamb, at 6-6, can play either forward spot extremely well. He was the second or third best high school player in the state of Massachusetts last season."
Flint has also recruited 5-11 point guard Anthony Anderson, a pure quarterback who may or may not qualify academically as a freshman. And two junior college players -- 6-6 point guard Jarett Kearse and 6-8 power forward Jackie Rogers, both of whom played a year at West Virginia -- are also slated to come to UMass. Kearse, who has averaged 12.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, and 4.5 apg. in the Big East as a sophomore starter, is a big-time player who could become an immediate starter at the point.
Add into the equation the natural development of young talents like Shannon Crooks and Kitwana Rhymer -- and the fortunate fact that shooting star Monty Mack will return as a fifth-year senior instead of entering the NBA draft -- and UMass could indeed be a very good team, even a potential contender for the Atlantic 10 crown. "We'd better be much better," Flint says. "You know, I am aware of the expectations. And they are high. But they are not out of order."