UMass: Kirkland steps up
By Ron Chimelis, The Springfield Union-News, 1/26/2000

AMHERST - The armband Chris Kirkland wears for support on his left arm has been dedicated to his infant son, C. J., who was born Friday.

Responsibility has come to the University of Massachusetts senior forward in other ways, too. He's a co-captain (with Mike Babul) on the men's basketball team. He's on schedule to graduate this spring.

And somewhat unexpectedly, he's also a star. Kirkland is averaging 15.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, and no longer is there a question of whether last season's success could be sustained.

"We go to him at the end of games now," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "That's something I never expected when he first came to campus."

Tomorrow night, Kirkland returns to Pittsburgh, where he played high school ball, for the final time as a collegian. UMass (9-8, 3-2 Atlantic 10) plays at Duquesne (8-9, 3-3), and Kirkland comes back as the player who has improved the most by far during Flint's regime.

"He's really improved his confidence level," Flint said. "When he came here, we saw glimpses in practice. He could rebound above the rim and run the floor.

"But he didn't show that same confidence in games. Last year was his first big step up."

It almost didn't happen this way for Kirkland, who played little as a freshman and less than 14 minutes per game as a sophomore. Early in his career, he seriously considered transferring.

"Those first two years were frustrating," he said. "But I had to fight through that instead of leaving. I cherish that I didn't give in to that."

Kirkland's career has bloomed even though his size (6-foot-6, 228 pounds) is a bit small for his usual position as power forward. He makes up for it with leaping ability and persistence.

Against Dayton last week, UMass trailed 54-52 with 30 seconds left when Kirkland posted up and took a turnaround jumper. Heavily covered, he didn't score, but the play made it clear how much he'd become a key option, even with the game on the line.

Kirkland moved from Timmonsville, S.C., to Pittsburgh before his sophomore year of high school. Three brothers still live there, and Kirkland was recruited by Duquesne.

"But my buddy (John) Calipari sneaked in and grabbed him, and then he left for the NBA," Duquesne coach Darelle Porter said.

"I liked the way they played, and he was straight-up with me," Kirkland said of Calipari, who is also from Pittsburgh. "He told me I'd get the opportunity at UMass."

It came last year, when Kirkland became a starter in late December. He responded by leading the Atlantic 10 in offensive rebounds (for conference games only) with 59, and in his last six games, he averaged 19.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.

"His first couple of years, he had to learn to understand college and how to do things," said Porter, who still admires Kirkland's game. "He might have relied too much on athletic ability at first, and he had to learn the fundamentals.

"I may be biased because Chris is from our area, but I think he should have been named the league's most improved player last year," Porter said.

The award instead went to Fordham's Alejandro Olivares. Kirkland says it didn't bother him, even though there's little question around the league that he's the better player.

"Sometimes things happen like that," said Kirkland, who said his confidence grew with the starting role. "Maybe if our team had had a better year, it would have been different."

This season, in his last six games, Kirkland has averaged 16.3 points and seven rebounds per game. He says tomorrow's homecoming will be worthwhile only with a victory.

"Duquesne is better this year," he said. "But we're playing better, too. Our defense is helping trigger our offense, and we've been more patient in the halfcourt game."

"We need him," Flint said. "Once he started having some success, he started showing the confidence that he could play at that level. He's been a very pleasant surprise."

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