Coverage from:
The Boston Herald
The Springfield Union-News

UMass eyes NIT bid
By Mark Murphy, The Boston Herald, 3/12/2000

PHILADELPHIA - Bruiser Flint won't get his dearest wish tonight.

The UMass coach won't be rooting for an outside chance when NCAA at-large bids are handed out at 6:30.

His telephone will ring an hour or so later, when NIT officials start welcoming the best of the rest into their own postseason tournament.

And in the case of a 17-15 UMass team that never truly found itself until last week in the Atlantic 10 tournament, the NIT is not necessarily a disappointing alternative.

The Minutemen had lost their last three games of the season before pasting Duquesne and George Washington over the first two rounds last week.

And though they succumbed to one of the most dangerous units in Division 1 men's basketball Friday night, the Minutemen earned a considerable degree of respect during their generally tight 54-47 loss to Temple.

``You could see that Bruiser's team was mentally very ready for us,'' said Temple coach John Chaney.

Translation? UMass has only started to play its best ball - especially when this team's mental state and lack of cohesion over the first three months of the season is considered.

``I told the guys that I thought we played the best basketball of the season down here this week,'' said Flint. ``We really did some good things down here. These guys worked hard for their 17 wins, and they've given it everything they have in practice every day.''

That counts for something right now. The notion of an NIT appearance has the appeal of cod liver oil for certain teams - especially those that consider themselves to be of NCAA timber.

But one of the Minutemen's chief struggles this season was to stay above .500.

Postseason basketball now feels like a bonus for this hungry group of players.

``I think we're just starting to play well as a team right now,'' said Monty Mack. ``I think if we put our minds together, that we're going to keep coming together as a team next week.''

The most likely scenario has the Minutemen playing a first-round game against Siena, which lost to Iona in the MAAC tournament title game.

The Minutemen, who opened their season with a win over Iona, most likely face playing Siena on the road, in Albany, N.Y.

A number of considerations are likely to go into this equation, though the NIT is historically reluctant to award home games to teams with poor attendance records.

And UMass, with its radical drop-off in season ticket sales this season, is not a desirable location. It is also spring break on campus this week, adding to the potential depletion.

Not that it matters. The Minutemen's road/neutral site record this season is 10-9, which isn't much different from their 7-6 home record.

Hoping to get NIT-picked
By Ron Chimelis, The Springfield Union-News, 3/12/2000

Kitwana Rhymer knew how he planned to spend his weekend in waiting.

"I'll call my mother in the Virgin Islands, and my uncle in New York," the University of Massachusetts center said Friday about awaiting tonight's word on whether the men's basketball season would continue for his team or not.

"I'll listen to the radio, too," said Rhymer, a junior who has never played in an NCAA tournament or NIT game. "And I'll pray."

He may not be alone. With a 17-15 record and a strong Atlantic 10 tournament showing, UMass believes it's in the 32-team NIT field, and is convinced it should be.

But until that phone call comes from the selection committee in New York, no one can say for sure.

"Do you think we've definitely got a spot?" forward Mike Babul nervously asked a reporter after Friday's 54-47 Atlantic 10 semifinal loss to Temple at Philadelphia's First Union Spectrum. Babul is one of three seniors who hope that wasn't their last game.

The others are Chris Kirkland and Anthony Oates, while a fourth senior, Monty Mack, is expected back next season. If Mack graduates on time this spring, he'll regain the year of eligibility he lost for academic reasons as a freshman.

It took Kirkland some time to digest the fact that by not winning the A-10 tournament, UMass saw its final hopes for an NCAA tournament spot extinguished.

"All my hopes were for the NCAA," said Kirkland, who was crestfallen after UMass had given sixth-ranked Temple a tremendous battle before coming up short. "But if we go to the NIT, we're going to play it just like the NCAAs and try to win it."

If UMass is selected, center Micah Brand is expected to see limited action at best. Sidelined by pneumonia for the last four games, Brand's status was termed "questionable" by trainer Ron Laham, who said the 6-foot-11 freshman needs to regain his strength and will be able to play only a few minutes per game, if he can play at all.

As for the team's prognosis, success in the NIT often comes to those that can put aside the disappointment of playing in a consolation tournament after missing the NCAA field.

The last time UMass played in the NIT was in 1991, when the program was on the rise and about to begin a string of seven straight NCAA tournament appearances from 1992-98.

Missing postseason play altogether and flirting with the same fate again this season put coach Bruiser Flint's job in jeopardy. But solid victories over Duquesne and George Washington in the Atlantic 10 tournament, sending UMass to the semifinals for the first time since 1996 and the first time under Flint appear to have saved him, though no official word on his status has been given.

As Flint's situation dominated his team's news, he told the players not to worry about him.

"I told them I was handling it better than they were, and they laughed because they knew it was true," he said. "I tried not to let it affect me, because then it would affect them. I just told them to stop reading the Internet and all that stuff."

At this point, Flint would gladly accept an NIT bid.

"Last year at this time, we knew we were going on vacation," he said. "Such an empty feeling."

In 1999, UMass was 14-16 and didn't reach the NIT's minimum .500 requirement. But UMass hopes the strong showing at the A-10 tournament clinched an NIT first-round game, probably Wednesday on the road.

"I hope we secured something," Babul said. "I know people were second-guessing us, but I hope we proved something this week."

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