Minutemen ready to fly
By Ron Chimelis, The Springfield Union-News, 11/15/1999

AMHERST The players say it's different this year, faster and more fun.

The coach is reluctant to say too much along those lines, for he knows that it's easy to be optimistic in November. But he thinks it's different, too.

The fans, by and large, remain to be convinced. There is an underlying urgency to this University of Massachusetts men's basketball season, a sense that Western Massachusetts will soon find out if its Division I team can regain its status as a significant national entity and Atlantic 10 Conference contender, or whether the program is skidding to a halt.

The early signs are good, although they are only early signs.

"We haven't played any games yet," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint, asked to assess if the Minutemen are on track to erase the sour memories of last year's 14-16 season. "Talk to me after about 15 games."

By that time, the Minutemen will have a better idea of if they've reversed a slide that has seen them lose 20 of their last 35 games over two seasons, including last year's mark that left UMass out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991, and out of any postseason play since 1989.

The season opens Saturday at Iona, a team that embarrassed UMass by 19 points at the Mullins Center last year.

The Minutemen are not promising a conference title or a high NCAA tournament seed. But there's one thing they are promising, which is that this year's team will be more fun to watch.

"One thing is that we can spurt a little bit on offense," Flint said. "We couldn't do that before."

The half-court defensive style that served UMass throughout John Calipari's tenure, and during the first three seasons under Flint, has been replaced by a pressing, up-tempo style. Half-court basketball wasn't criticized as UMass rose to national prominence, but as the victories became more infrequent, the criticism of the grinding, conservative style increased.

The quicker style was tested in two exhibition games, and the results were encouraging. UMass averaged a previously unfathomable 100 points per game, gave up 92.5 per game and came away thinking the new approach, while imperfect, might work.

"There are still some things to work on, like finding where the shots are against a zone," Flint said. "But against the Converse All-Stars, we had to make plays in the end, and I think we did a good job at that."

In that exhibition game, UMass won 97-88 in overtime. In the last 35 minutes, the Minutemen scored 88 points. This is the same program that averaged 64.3 points per game last year, but it's apparently not the same team.

Gone are the enigmatic Lari Ketner, popular but inconsistent Charlton Clarke, and the volatile Ajmal Basit, who was thrown off the team last season.

The new faces are sophomore point guard Shannon Crooks, who sat out as a transfer from St. John's last year; freshman center Micah Brand and 6-foot-3 guard JoVann Johnson. All have shown encouraging signs in the preseason.

Ketner's spot is being filled by 6-10 junior Kit Rhymer, who had 17 rebounds and 15 points against Converse. Clarke's job is being handled by Crooks, though Jonathan DePina has had an admirable preseason and may open at the point if senior Monty Mack isn't ready, which would move Crooks to shooting guard.

Mack is recovering from a stress fracture in his left foot. Forward Mike Babul has a strained muscle in his back, and neither is certain for Saturday's opener.

After Iona is a game at Connecticut. An 0-2 start might dampen whatever early enthusiasm the high-scoring exhibition games have generated amongst fans.

And they were only exhibition games, which are used as a preparatory tool by most teams but have evolved into a two-part referendum for this one, which is faced with dwindling attendance, prestige and revenue and is led by a coach under a microscope.

Converse coach Mickey Walker saw the new UMass style Wednesday night and summed up the general feeling of a program under no small pressure to win.

"At the very least, it will be more enjoyable, and the kids might assimilate into it better," Walker said.

Back to the home page

Click Here to Visit Our Sponsor