promising win on the road vs. Iona (85-77), and a promisingly well-played loss to defending national champion Uconn (65-79) yes, you could safely say that the UMass Minutemen's season, at this early point at least, looks entirely promising.
But will that promise be kept or broken? If seemingly little things, like UMass' once-again-vile free throw shooting (just 61 percent vs. UConn) improves just a little bit, then this year's no-expectations-burdened, enjoyably low-profile UMass edition has every chance to be a much better team than the overrated, overhyped prima donnas they were last year.
Before you'd undervalue the Iona victory they're only a MAAC team, after all let's not forget how the heavy underdog Gaels destroyed UMass 77-58, at Amherst no less, last season. In fact, that was the very loss that pretty much foreshadowed UMass' entire horror of a season.
So revenge was to be had in the Minuteguys' opener, for sure.
But not right away: Iona once again took control of the game in the first half behind the work of its talented 6-8 forward Tariq Kirksay (15 points, 8 rebounds at intermission). But then UMass' always-solid "D", particularly longtime defensive demon Mike Babul (who stopped Kirksay cold in the crucial parts of the game), took over in dominating fashion in the second stanza, allowing only 36 percent shooting by the Gaels. And UMass guard Monty Mack, a first team All-Conference choice who played little in the preseason due to a stress fracture in his right foot, showed up in midseason form once the real chips were down, scoring a game-high 21 points off the bench.
During a strongly played second half by UMass, the two teams switched leads furiously before Mack and 6-7 forward Chris Kirkland (15 points, 5 rebounds) started a key 12-3 run with 11:28 left on the clock. Still, the turning point of the game, with 9:38 left, was an intentional foul called on Iona while Kirkland scored on a layup. Captain Kirk sunk both free throws, then new Minuteman point guard Shannon Crooks hit a jumper from the top of the key, giving UMass an insurmountable 64-56 lead.
"Iona beat us worse than UConn did last year," a relieved UMass coach Bruiser Flint said after the well-played contest. "They came in here and just thrashed us." UMass was so horrid in that game that, according to Flint, he has never showed his players the tape of that very nasty evening. At least not until the night before the promising season-opening victory.
"The second half, I thought we did a very solid job," added the coach. "We did a great job, in fact, in running the plays we wanted. It was a good game for us to start the season."
And then, if possible, things got even better in the 79-65 U-Game loss to defending champ UConn.
Really, the youthful Minutekids displayed so many extremely promising things against the top-notchest of opponents in such a hugely hyped game, it has to bode well very well for the rest of the season. Flint, in fact, kept his preseason promise: the team, so sluggish last season, ran spiritedly with UConn all game, a style that should be far more effective for the type of talent UMass has available this year. As a result, players like Mack (26 points), quicksilver quarterback Jonathan DePina (10 points, 3-3 treys), and willowy bench forward Ronnell Blizzard (5 points, one block in just 12 minutes off the pine) had truly promising games. And Crooks, who appears to be an awesome physical talent but still erratic after a year's layoff, flashed a great future as well.
Even better, 6-10 junior center Kitwana Rhymer a huge question mark in most minds as to his ability to replace Lari Ketner was just about awesome, pulling down 17 huge rebounds against what could ver well be the nation's best, and biggest, front line. Only some usual bugaboos poor free throw shooting and an annoying lack of depth up front kept the Minuteguys from taking this highly competitive contest down to the home stretch. As it is, an 8-1 UMass run, built on five points by the unstoppable Mack and a deep trey by the suddenly soft-shooting DePina, brought UMass within four scant points of the champs at the middle of the second half. The Minutemen, however, did get worn down, down the stretch, by the champs' superior depth and size.
But this won't happen against too many other teams. "If we continue to play like this, and get better in some areas, we'll be just fine," said Flint. "I am very excited about the approach, the attitude, and the ultimate ability of this team."