LBANY -- Siena coach Paul Hewitt and Massachusetts coach James "Bruiser'' Flint have been friends for years. They even played golf together during a Nike trip to Hawaii over the summer.
There was no score kept that day. They'll be keeping score Thursday night, however.
As expected, Siena got a home game in the National Invitation Tournament, and as Hewitt expected, it comes against a regional rival. Siena and UMass will meet Thursday in the first round of the NIT, with tipoff set for 7 p.m. at Pepsi Arena.
Siena, the regular-season champion of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, is 23-8 overall. UMass, which lost 54-47 to Temple Friday in the Atlantic 10 Conference semifinals, is 17-15.
"I'm excited and I'm looking forward to playing,'' Hewitt said. "I've known Bruiser for quite a while. We probably never would have scheduled a game against each other because we know each other so well, but I'm looking forward to it.''
Hewitt said that he was expecting to draw either Michigan or UMass for the first round. Flint said he didn't have any idea who his team would play, but seemed pleased to go against his buddy.
"Our wives were starting to get a little upset at us for spending so much time together,'' said Flint, who met Hewitt in 1989 at a camp. "It's going to be fun.''
Siena athletic director John D'Argenio took the call from NIT committee president Bob Byrnes at 10:02 p.m. Sunday, ending a relatively short and hardly nerve-wracking vigil.
"We're just glad to be playing,'' junior guard Brian Scalzo said. "It didn't matter who we got. We just wanted a game.''
Only one team with more Division I victories than Siena did not qualify for the NCAA field. That was Delaware, a 24-6 team which lost the America East championship game to Hofstra. Delaware had an RPI of 90 as of Sunday afternoon; no at-large NCAA team had a lower RPI than 52nd-ranked Pepperdine.
It's always difficult for a team from a mid-major conference like the MAAC to break through and gain an at-large bid into the NCAA field. It's only happened once in MAAC history, to Manhattan in 1995.
NCAA tournament committee chairman Craig Thompson said Sunday night that this year, the amount of parity in conference tournaments effectively eliminated the good mid-major teams.
"We measured quality wins against unfortunate losses,'' Thompson said. "This was the most difficult selection process I've been involved with. I've never experienced more conference tournament upsets than what we saw this weekend.''
It's Siena's sixth national postseason appearance as a Division I school, and the school's fourth trip to the postseason NIT.
Other notable NIT teams this year include Villanova, Notre Dame, Kent, Vanderbilt and Virginia, a team which was third in the Atlantic Coast Conference and beat North Carolina twice.
"The NIT is loaded this year,'' Hewitt said. "I've got to think it's the strongest field they've had.''
Siena has a 6-3 record in postseason NIT play. It finished third in the 1994 NIT, reached the quarterfinal round in 1991 (losing to Massachusetts 82-80 in overtime), and was eliminated in the first round in 1988.
Siena is 1-4 all-time against Massachusetts, but has not played the Minutemen since the 1992-93 season.
"You can never replace the NCAAs,'' senior forward Jim Cantamessa said. "But we're going to do our best.''
NIT begins Tuesday and continues with 14 other first-round games Wednesday and Thursday. The event concludes with semifinals and finals March 28-30 at Madison Square Garden.
"The last two or three games of the regular season didn't mean much, but we still got up for them,'' senior forward Corey Osinski said. "Now we're playing for something. We want to get back to the Garden.''
MHERST - The hours didn't pass easily.
Bruiser Flint's cellphone kept ringing, as well as the office phone, and sometimes both at once.
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``I don't know yet, man, I'll talk to you later,'' the UMass coach repeatedly told his friends and associates, before the expected news arrived from the NIT selection committee.
UMass, which didn't play in any postseason tournament last year, will be paired this week against Siena on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Albany, N.Y. The winner will play the winner of a first-round game between Princeton and Penn State.
Siena, which lost to Iona in the final game of the MAAC tournament last week, is a familiar enough commodity.
Coach Paul Hewitt is a frequent guest at Flint's summer camp, and his team won 21 games this year with a pressing, running style that is somewhat similar to what George Washington puts on the floor.
That's a bonus, considering that the Minutemen played one of their best games of the season by controlling the pace during a win over the Colonials in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament last Thursday.
But the pros and cons of this particular matchup are beside the point right now for Flint, who admitted he got a little nervous last night.
``This was nerve-wracking because you don't know anything until they get in touch with you,'' he said, before heading home for some well-deserved sleep. ``At least you have a time when you find out about whether or not you've made it into the NCAA tournament. There's no set time for this.''
Thus the late-night relief.
``To be honest, I'm just happy to be picked,'' he said.
A lot of rough spots from the Minutemen's 17-15 season went into that statement. The harsh part, best reflected in UMass' bloated 106 RPI, has been this team's inconsistent play.
The best part is that the Minutemen, after three solid games last week, including a hard loss to Temple in the A-10 semifinals on Friday, have developed some late-season hunger.
``I think they felt good about playing ball again,'' said Flint. ``Sometimes you don't know how they're going to follow up on that, but I think we're encouraged.
``Last year we knew it was over. This year we're going to the NIT,'' he said. ``I'm happy that our seniors get to keep playing. We bounced back.''
UMass athletic director Bob Marcum shared his coach's sense of relief.
``I was just happy to get in, because that 106 RPI was a little tough,'' he said. ``With all of the things that happened over the last week, and with what happened in the (NCAA) brackets, you could see a pretty tough NIT field shaping up. Siena has 21 wins. They're a good program.''
Siena has also apparently been hoping for this matchup for quite some time.
``They've been calling about scheduling a game, so we've got it now,'' Flint laughed.
This will be the first time in a decade that the Minutemen will be playing in the NIT. After losing a first-round game at Maryland in 1990, UMass reached the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden in 1991 by winning three straight games. The Minutemen beat current Atlantic 10 foes La Salle (at home) and Fordham (in the Bronx), then won a memorable overtime game at Siena when current UMass assistant Tony Barbee hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of regulation. The Minutemen lost to eventual champion Stanford and Colorado in New York.
MHERST — When the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team rose to its position of national prominence, the National Invitation Tournament was a useful springboard in 1990 and 1991.
Now, nearly a decade later, the Minutemen are back in the NIT, this time with a team that hopes it is rediscovering the secret of consistent success.
UMass (17-15) was chosen to the 32-team NIT field last night and will play Siena (23-8) Thursday night at 7 at the Pepsi Arena in Albany, N.Y. UMass coach Bruiser Flint, an assistant the last time UMass played in the NIT, is happy the season will keep going.
"Siena has been calling us to schedule a game, and now we've got one with them," Flint said. "I think they run, press and shoot a lot of 3-pointers. But we're just happy to be playing somebody."
If UMass wins Thursday, the Minutemen will meet the winner of Wednesday's game between Penn State (15-15) and visiting Princeton (19-10) either March 20 or 21, at a site to be determined.
This will be Flint's third postseason appearance in four years as coach. His 1997 and 1998 teams lost first-round games in the NCAA tournament, and last year's 14-16 team went home early.
"I thought we'd be playing, so I told the players to come back to campus Sunday night," Flint said.
UMass is on spring break, and the Minutemen went home for the weekend after Friday's 54-47 loss to Temple in the Atlantic 10 tournament semifinals.
But a strong A-10 tournament showing, featuring an 86-68 quarterfinal win over George Washington, solidified the Minutemen's case for one of the 32 NIT spots. It gives Flint a new chance to break into the postseason win column.
The NIT field includes UMass and Xavier from the Atlantic 10, and four from the Big East — Villanova, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Georgetown. There are also three Atlantic Coast Conference teams in Virgina, Wake Forest and North Carolina State.
Vanderbilt, which meets Wake Forest in a first-round NIT game tomorrow, expected to reach the NCAA field. But when Arkansas snatched the automatic bid with the SEC tournament title, the Commodores may have lost out, since their inclusion would have given the SEC seven teams.
Two NIT sleeper teams may be found from the Mid-American Conference. Bowling Green (22-7), which had the best regular-season league record, and Kent (21-7) was 34th in the RPI power ratings — the highest-rated team not to be picked for the NCAA tournament.
Another sleeper might be Southwest Missouri State (22-10), which was 36th in the RPI and loser to Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference. This is a team that finished a game behind Indiana State for the MVC regular-season title, split with the Sycamores during the season and advanced farther than Larry Bird's alma mater in the league tournament, but was passed over while Indiana State was picked.
Other NIT entries of note are Southern Illinois, which beat UMass in the Puerto Rico Holiday Classic, and America East runnerup Delaware, where former UMass forward Ajmal Basit is sitting out the year after transferring.
Pacific 10 entry Arizona State, Michigan from the Big 10 and Mountain West tournament runnerup Brigham Young are also considered strong entries.
Siena just missed reaching the NCAA tournament, losing 84-80 to Iona in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference final with an automatic bid at stake. The Saints won the MAAC regular-season title and are led by 6-foot-5 Marcus Faison (16.8 ppg., 6.0 rpg.), 6-7 Corey Osinski (13.6 ppg., 6.3 rpg.) and 6-8 Jim Cantamessa (11.5 ppg.), all seniors.
UMass is 4-0 all-time against Siena and 5-9 all-time in the NIT, and Siena holds a special place in Minutemen history. A game-winning shot by Tony Barbee, who is now a UMass assistant coach, gave the Minutemen an 82-80 overtime victory over the Saints in the 1991 NIT quarterfinal, catapulting UMass into the tournament's final four at Madison Square Garden.
That game is still seen as a turning point for UMass, which began a run of seven straight NCAA tournament appearances in 1992.
Last night after hearing of the team's bid, UMass athletic director Bob Marcum did not comment on Flint's job status. But the Minutemen's winning record, strong Atlantic 10 tournament showing and NIT berth have strengthened the coach's status.
UMass has played in the NIT eight times, all since 1970 when Julius Erving was the star of the team. The best showing was the fourth-place finish in 1991.
This year's team comes in with confidence. Bolstered by outstanding play from guards Shannon Crooks and Monty Mack, the Minutemen showed a more poised, patient offense in the A-10 tournament.
Crooks shot 19 for 35 in the three A-10 tourney games. Mack averaged 20 points per game.
The Minutemen are not expecting freshman Micah Brand, who has missed the last four games with pneumonia, for more than a few minutes per game in the NIT, and it's possible that Brand won't play at all. Trainer Ron Laham said the 6-foot-11 center must regain his strength before being able to play again.
MHERST — What's worse than wondering if you're rated the 65th-best team in a field of 64?
Wondering if you're the 97th team in a postseason collection of 96.
Bruiser Flint spent last night in his office, his immediate future entrusted to a group of genial if somewhat old-fashioned gentlemen from New York City. These men on the National Invitation Tournament committee, nameless and faceless to the general public, held the fate of the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team in their hands.
To successful programs, the NIT seems like a consolation prize, a chance to chant "We're No. 65!" if you win. But when you wonder if you'll get in at all, a spot in the 32-team field suddenly becomes a cherished possession, the difference between a reasonably satisfactory ending and a very sour taste.
So Flint waited until 8, an hour after the announcement of the NCAA tournament seedings were completed. Then 8:30. Then past 9.
Once UMass routed George Washington Thursday, it had seemed almost a foregone conclusion that the Minutemen would be NIT-bound. But the key word here is "almost." The NCAA invites non-automatic qualifers based on fairly well-designed data, but as long as a team has won half its games, the NIT can choose on gate appeal, regional location, and presumably — this being purely invitational — whether your coach has a nice smile.
Friday, UMass forward Mike Babul was asking reporters for definite assurances. None existed. But not until the hours began to pass last night did it seem possible that the first two letters of NIT could stand for "Not Invited."
So Flint waited, comforting himself with the idea that part of NIT first-round planning involves the availability of home sites. Since UMass wasn't expected to be a host, 16 phone calls to home teams probably had to occur before Amherst would be dialed up.
More waiting. John Robic, a former assistant who now coaches Youngstown State, called. So did Flint's daughter. Bill Bayno did not, probably too busy making plans for UNLV to play Tulsa in the NCAA South Regional.
"Waiting is waiting," Flint said at 9. "I'm starved, though."
Flint has spent all season waiting, anyway. Waiting for his team to find a consistent level of play. Waiting to see signs that his job was safe. Actually, he's still waiting for that, but the signs are good.
It has been said that for Flint to keep his job, UMass would have to at least make the NIT. By yesterday, that was no longer believed to be the case.
The Minutemen seemed to have done enough to make it, so the coach's fate would not be determined by the whimsies of the selectors.
Spring break has begun at UMass, and the players had gone home. None were around. Those who were — Flint, assistant Geoff Arnold and a few media members — talked about everything but what everyone was thinking about.
It was 9:45. If they don't pick you, you don't get called. And UMass, with an RPI of 106 — one notch below Central Connecticut State — had a good but not rock-solid case.
By 10, nervousness had replaced curiosity. Teams that feel deserving get left out every year.
Flint left his office to find athletic director Bob Marcum. At 10:08, he came back in.
"We didn't get picked," he said. But his smile gave away the lie.
UMass at Siena, Thursday at 7. "We're just happy to keep playing,' he said.
And relieved. The NIT may be a consolation tournament, but making it is better consolation than finding out that after four months and 32 games, you're deemed 97th best in a postseason field of 96.
MHERST - The phone call did not come quickly, but when it came, the University of Massachusetts coaching staff was pleased and relieved.
"It was worth the wait," said Minuteman coach Bruiser Flint Sunday night after learning that his team had made the National Invitation Tournament. "This was more nerve-wracking. At least you know (the) time period for when you're going to get your information for the NCAA."
The much-predicted matchup is now a reality. UMass will take on Siena at the Pepsi Center in Albany Thursday at 7 p.m. The winner will face the winner of the Princeton/Penn State game either next Monday or Tuesday.
The Minutemen have been to the NIT nine times, but not since 1991, so the coaching staff wasn't sure how long it would take to be notified. Flint and assistant Geoff Arnold sat in the office with a media contingent at 8 p.m. waiting for the phone to ring. And ring it did, about 20 times. With the exception of a good-night call from Flint's 4-year-old daughter Jada, the responses on the Mullins Center end of the line were nearly identical.
"Hello," Flint would say, and then, "We haven't heard anything yet. I'll call you."
The volume of interest in UMass' post-season fate was so high that at one point Flint had his office phone to one ear and his cellular phone to the other.
To pass the time, the group in the office swapped stories and analyzed the NCAA brackets that had been released a few hours before. Arnold was a little more fidgety, shifting his weight from one leg to the other while leaning against a wall.
He downed several pieces of hard candy from office secretary Bonnie Martin's desk before fishing out a piece of Bazooka gum and proceeding to blow large pink bubbles.
The media amused itself by thumbing through a stack of basketball magazines and playing games with cell phones.
After sharing a story about an old high school girlfriend, Flint looked at the clock and sighed.
"Man, this is tough. At least with the NCAA, you know when the brackets are coming up," he said again.
Then, using one reporter as a prop, he demonstrated how to best defend Temple's Pepe Sanchez. The phone rang again.
"Nothing yet," Flint said to a caller. "I told you I'll call you later.
At around 9 p.m. Arnold decided to be proactive and called a friend from his days at St. Joseph's. While that call didn't produce any information, Arnold's contact assured him that not having heard yet wasn't a reason to panic.
At 9:42 p.m., Athletics Director Bob Marcum stepped into the outer office and announced that he expected some news within the next 20 minutes, before walking back down the hall to his own office.
For good measure, Flint waited 25 minutes and then headed to see Marcum.
When Flint returned, he said, "We didn't get picked," trying to fake a somber expression.
Nobody bought it.
"Nah," he said cracking a smile. "We got Siena out there at 7 p.m. on Thursday."
Flint and his staff left the office happily with a plan to rendezvous Monday morning to track down Siena game tape and set up preparation for the week.
"Last year, once we lost in the (Atlantic 10) tournament, we knew it was over," Flint said. "It's a very empty feeling. This year, we're going to play in the NIT and we're happy for that. We're happy the seniors are able to continue their season."
* * *
The two schools have NIT history. The Minutemen beat the Saints, 82-80, in overtime to advance to the NIT Final Four in 1991.
This season, Siena (23-8) won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season title, but fell to Iona in the conference tournament finals.
"They run, they press and they shoot a ton of threes," Flint said. "They run up and down."
Flint and Saints' coach Paul Hewitt are friends and the Siena coach has expressed interest in playing UMass.
"They've been calling me about scheduling a game," Flint said. "We've got it now."
* * *
UMass guard Monty Mack was named to the Atlantic 10 All-Tournament team along with St. Bonaventure's Tim Winn and Temple's Mark Karcher, Pepe Sanchez and Quincy Wadley.