Minutemen long for brighter days
National Basketball Notebook
By Mark Murphy, The Boston Herald, 1/10/2000

Apathy casts quite a shadow these days.

Bruiser Flint knows most of its forms - the growing number of fans and alumni calling for his dismissal, an equal number who stopped showing up, and a growing perception that the 34-year-old UMass coach's tenure is locked into making this year's NCAA tournament.

``The moment I start thinking about that is the moment I start panicking,'' Flint said Friday. ``I have two years left on my contract. I just have to concentrate on my job, but you're always facing pressure here, from Day 1. But I have to admit that it's gotten easier for me to deal with. That's coaching in the '90s - everywhere. People want you to win.''

At the core is a struggling team with a number of woes, and it can't all be blamed on the past sins of Marcus Camby, or Lari Ketner's timid nature. Flint's access to many top recruits was cut off following the 1996 scandal, but with the exception of Lou Roe and Donta Bright, UMass never has attracted big, nationally sought high school players. Camby, incidentally, was an undiscovered diamond in the rough, without any national cache. John Calipari reached him first.

But the program's improbable rise in the 1990s was built just as much on tough overachievers such as Harper Williams, Will Herndon, Tony Barbee, Dana Dingle, Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso - players who blossomed and thrived in a UMass uniform.

As corny as it always sounded when Calipari went off on one of his ``my guys play defense like if they lose they're going to the electric chair,'' or ``refuse to lose'' rants, his players heartily backed him up.

The program now is most notable for its success in welcoming and graduating Prop 48 students, with Tyrone Weeks, Ketner and now Monty Mack the prime examples.

But the old, on-court mental toughness has worn off. Flint, a coach of tremendous heart, sometimes has trouble drawing the same quality out of his players. Recent recruiting classes have been mediocre, and with the exception of a brimming talent like Mack, or Chris Kirkland's gradual emergence as a scorer, player development has not been a Flint hallmark.

The lack of a capable UMass point guard over the last three seasons has been painful and frustrating for all involved.

Only the effort remains. With the exception of a bottomed-out performance during the Puerto Rico Holiday Classic, this season's team is not a stranger to floor burns. But the desire has been coupled with extreme tentativeness.

Saturday's inspired 82-52 win over Fordham notwithstanding, UMass has too many players who are either afraid to shoot, can't shoot, or instantly look at the coach after making a mistake, leading to more mistakes.

Flint has tried for a kinder and gentler style this season, and the Fordham game offered the best indication yet that the Minutemen can play hard and loose.

But in addition to winning games, the Minutemen need to find their lost flock. A crowd of 5,092 - second lowest in the Mullins Center's seven-year history - attended the Fordham game. There has only been one sellout - last January's win over Kansas - over the last two seasons in the 9,493-capacity building.

UMass season ticket-holders dropped from 4,900 to 3,700 this season - the single largest decrease since the Mullins Center opened. Fund-raising also took a hit, not so much in actual money raised as in a dwindling group of contributing alumni.

Athletic director Bob Marcum borrowed a line from his coach in saying 15 games are left, in a sport famous for its in-season turnarounds. But ultimately, Marcum may not have much choice.

``People don't come to watch you play - they come to watch you win,'' Marcum said Thursday, using a favorite saying to explain what he sees in the stands. ``If I want to watch someone play, I'll take my grandchildren to the playground.''

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