s good as UMass (1-1) looked in its first two games of the season and, in a stark contrast to last year's underachievers, they looked very good associate head coach Geoff Arnold knows all too well that they have to get even better. "The Atlantic 10 Conference was supposed to be down, with no Lamar Odom and everything this year," he says. "But just look at our teams. They are all pretty much doing far better than expected in all those early season tournaments."
Which means that even this much more exciting 1999-2000 version of the UMass Minutemen has its work cut out in trying to do well enough in the conference to make the 64-team NCAA Tournament field. "That is our goal this season even though few people think we can make it," Arnold says. "But, if we just get a tad better in a few areas, I think we can surprise."
Two areas where clear improvement is indicated are offensive balance and depth. Totally unlike Coach Bruiser Flint's burly inside bruisers of the past few years, this UMass team seems far too perimeter-oriented. Sleek guards Monty Mack (23.5 ppg, 8-24 threes in two games), Shannon Crooks, and Jonathan DePina (4-4 threes) are scooting all over the floor looking for their shot and putting up an astonishing amount of treys. Which would be welcome if it's properly balanced with an inside attack.
UMass, in fact, leads the league in three-point field goal percentage in the early going, shooting at an excellent 37.1 rate from the deep.
But the post game? It's been largely AWOL. Raw Minuteman center Kitwana Rhymer, though very promising, is still more of a rebounding force (17 vs. UConn, and leading the league in offensive boards) than a smooth offensive operator at this point. And Chris Kirkland, so offensively potent at the end of last season, has been somewhat stymied by the opposition's sheer size so far. "That's been part of it," says Arnold. "Those UConn guys were huge, and there were so many of them, it was unbelievable. But it's also up to us, as a coaching staff, to come up with more creative stuff to get Chris Kirkland free."
Just how bad has the inside attack been? In spite of that exceptional average from the deep perimeter, UMass is 11th (next to last) in the league in overall shooting (38.2 percent). The team's rebounding margin (minus 3.0) after two games is also 11th in the conference and that's in spite of Rhymer's punishing board prowess against UConn.
And that just won't do the job.
Nor will the Minuteguys' too-shallow rotation that, down the stretch against UConn, was clearly fading on tired legs in what was an otherwise very well-played game by UMass. When the 6-10 Rhymer and skinny 6-7 Kirkland go up against such size and power provided by so many different players, they can't expect to last 40 minutes at the prime of their productiveness. And neither can the hardrunning guard-trio, which played pretty much all of the backcourt minutes for UMass so far.
"But this is not a situation we expect to stay the same," Arnold says. "Very early in the season, you always tend to go more with your main guys. As Coach Bruiser says, 'go with the know, and leave the unknown alone.' But later on, you're bound to use more guys, due to whatever circumstances. And we have some kids on the bench who are working too hard not to play. So I tell them, keep on staying ready. You never know when you get your chance."
"In fact, both Rhymer and Kirkland were little-used reserves not that long ago," adds the coach. "And just look at them now."
Thinny-thin 6-8 forward Ronnell Blizzard, very spunky against UConn, seems to have the best chance to emerge off the pine as a major contributor. He's a great shooter who can really deal in the open court. But 6-11 rookie center-forward Micah Brand (7 rebounds against Iona), veteran swingman Winston Smith, and 6-3 JC transfer JoVann Johnson should begin to get consistent playing time as well, if UMass is to reach its potential.
"Johnson has the chance to become a big-time player," says Arnold. "He's a slasher type who's really good all around, plays tough defense, and knows how to get to the basket. And Micah just needs consistency and strength. He's another excellent talent."
"At the pace we're playing this year, we need to develop a 9-10 man rotation," Arnold adds. "In fact, that is one of our goals, to develop a consistent rotation of that many players. As we intend to stay 'on the run' all season, that would be ideal for us."
Arnold also expects more production from Crooks who, in spite of his inconsistent play against Uconn, which earned him some serious pinetime in the second half, is obviously a major league talent. "He has physical gifts you can't teach," Arnold says. "Crooksie just hasn't played in real competition for a while. He's rusty. But, with his ability, you'll see him just getting better and better. It's a given."
And a more exciting, far more fun-to-watch UMass team this season seems to be a given as well. The question is, with the Atlantic 10 being such a well-balanced, strong conference, as it appears to be so far, will the improvement show up in wins?