UMass' Prospects Looking Up
Except for @&*%$ Marshall, of course.
By Tom Kertes,, Dec. 5, 1999

As promising as the Minutemen (3-2) have been so far overall, playing in a rebuilding year with a largely transformed roster, you have to expect some ups and downs to occur. Still, the downs generated by the nasty 65-55 home loss to Marshall – a rather obscure team from the nation's top sleeper conference (The Mid-American), who the Minuteguys simply don't seem to be able to beat – were so devastating that UMass coach Bruiser Flint lost his bearings and actually uttered an expletive on his postgame radio show.

Hey, (sh)it happens. Still, Flint imposed a one-game suspension on himself, a rather severe form of self-flagellation, from where we're sitting. "It's a lesson we all have to learn," said the coach. "It's taking responsibility for your own actions."

"I always tell my players that when they do something wrong, there is a price to pay," added Flint. "Obviously, the language on the radio the other night was inappropriate. I caught it right away and apologized on the air but, after thinking about it, sitting out for a game is the right thing to do."

"You do the crime, you do the time."

Of course, the more serious crime by far was the team's play, very poor once again against the same Marshall squad that singed UMass by 22 last season. Sure, the Thundering Herd went 16-11 on the year in '99 and, for the third time in a row, have all five starters back this season. So this is a team that, unlike UMass at this early part of the season, can be expected to already play together like a well-oiled machine. But still... we're not exactly talking UConn or Temple-type talent here. Not even close.

So perhaps it was understandable that UMass' horrendous rebounding (a one-sided 48-33 defeat in The Battle of the Boards), putrid perimeter poppery (an unacceptable 2-14 from trey range), and error-prone guardplay (14 turnovers against just 11 assists) got to Flint. In spite of all the horrid play, UMass still managed to cut the deficit to 55-53 with 3:20 to go in the game. But then Marshall scored the next six points in row to lock things up and give Bruiser a bad case of the bad-word blues.

UMass wasted shooting guard Monty Mack's 22-point effort – his third consecutive game over 20 – and new starting center Kitwana Rhymer's first career double-double (16 points and 10 rebounds). The ravaging Rhymer, really coming on of late, also had an astonishing six blocked shots.

Coached by associate coach Geoff Arnold, the team turned things around quite nicely three days later by soundly trouncing winless Boston University, 70-51. The most important development in this otherwise mundanely one-sided exercise was UMass power forward Chris Kirkland's re-arrival among the living. Captain Kirk, such a powerful surprise down the homestretch last season after he entered the starting lineup, was off slowly this year, to say the least. "We needed him to play well in order to give us more of a post game inside," Arnold said. "That would provide us with more versatility on offense and turn us into a much better offensive team."

Mission accomplished, it seems, as the revitalized Kirkland remained on fire in UMass' impressive 74-67 victory over Boston College with 16 points, two assists, and three big steals. With Coach Flint back directing things from the bench, UMass went on a superb 14-3 run against its Big East opponent with 14 minutes left in the game, turning a 46-41 deficit into a 55-49 lead. After the simply sizzling Monty Mack (26 points) ignited the spark by hitting a tough trey, Kirkland scored seven points in a row during the key run. Mack then sunk a couple of more big threes, each stopping a solid B.C. comeback attempt in its tracks.

The Minutemen also received huge games from gifted third guard Shannon Crooks (9 points, 4 assists, 3 steals in 20 minutes) and promising rookie big man Micah Brand (9 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block in 18 minutes). Rhymer chipped in with 6 points and 8 rebounds in the impressive victory over a quality opponent.

"This was much better," a relieved Flint said. "We're getting there, I guess. But our learning curve won't always be a straight one. That's not the way things work in this game."

Next up is Villanova, an even better Big East team. But the 2-0 Wildcats – strong up front, but starting an all-new backcourt – are the type of squad that the Minutemen should match up with rather well.

Win, lose, or tie, it should be an excellent test.

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