hen opponents get their first look at UMass basketball this season many of them may not recognize what they see. Well, they’ll recognize the up-tempo, pressing defense but what will surprise them are the maroon & white uniforms applying the speed. The gates have been opened and a much whispered about running game has been released on the 1999-2000 season.
Head coach Bruiser Flint is grabbing the change of style with both hands and is looking to run with it into the new millenium - literally. This year’s team will harken back to a time when speed was more a part of the UMass game and pressure defense was a staple. A time when “Refuse to Lose” was more than a copyrighted slogan - it was a way of life.
After a subpar season last year the Minutemen look to make a statement this season. Quality scoring has left last year’s squad but so has a lack of speed. Athleticism and quickness has replaced the departed Minutemen and creativity on the court has once again become a positive.
The tradition continues.
This squad has the tools and mental scheme to not only qualify for postseason, but to also advance past the first round for the first time under head coach Bruiser Flint. To underestimate the bitter taste left by last season’s losing record would be a grave disservice to the level of achievement that this program has attained and to the people, many of which are still here, that have put their blood, sweat and tears into UMass basketball.
For the first time in several years, UMass will not have a dominant player at center. The last couple of years have seen Lari Ketner and Marcus Camby be the offensive hub on which the Minuteman scoring wheel would roll. The pace of that wheel looks to gain a little velocity in 1999-2000 as the bulk of the scoring is kicked to the backcourt.
With more speed on the floor, watch the Minutemen run towards the new millennium. All-America candidate Monty Mack will have some new running mates alongside him in the backcourt with transfers Shannon Crooks and JoVann Johnson. All three are capable of scoring in double figures as well as pushing the ball up the floor.
“Our style of play is determined by the players on the team,” said Flint. “Last year we wanted to run more but we were limited by the types of players we had. This year we will be very athletic and will be much more capable of running the ball and creating some easy baskets in the transition game.”
Question marks will arise in the frontcourt where junior Kitwana Rhymer will be asked to fill the void left by 1999 NBA second round draft pick, Lari Ketner. Senior Chris Kirkland came on like gangbusters at the end of last year and could blossom into one of the biggest surprises of the upcoming season. To keep opposing defenses off of Kirkland the Minutemen will need some scoring in the middle and the small forward position where senior Mike Babul has redefined “in-your-face” defense.
And in the coaching ranks one of UMass’ own returns to the fold after a year in the wild West. After a year at Wyoming, Tony Barbee replaces John Robic, who took the head coaching job at Youngstown State, while Geoff Arnold was promoted to associate head coach. Barbee had spent two years as an assistant coach at UMass prior to his move west.
For the first time in several years the Minutemen will start the season without a proven go-to guy in the middle. Lari Ketner has taken his 6-10, 285 pound body to the Chicago Bulls and junior Kitwana Rhymer (St. Thomas, Virgin Islands/St. Raymond’s (N.Y.)) is the heir apparent.
“It’ll be a little different,” said Flint. “We’ve always been a team that had a center that can really score. Kit gives us a defensive presence and a rebounding presence that we haven’t had since probably Marcus (Camby).”
Last season was Rhymer’s first as a collegiate after sitting out his freshman season due to NCAA regulations. His willingness to work and athleticism made him one of the more pleasant surprises of a year ago. The 6-10, 257 pound junior averaged 2.5 points and 2.7 rebounds a game in less than 10 minutes per contest while finishing third on the team with 21 blocked shots.
Rhymer gave a peek to UMass fans of what he is capable of with seven points, 10 rebounds and a pair of blocked shots in 17 minutes against Boston College in the Commonwealth Classic.
Depth in the middle may be a sticking point this season with unproven talent in reserve. Senior Anthony Oates (Phoenix, Ariz./Amphitheater/Yavapi J.C.) played 48 minutes last season in 12 games, playing behind Ketner and Rhymer. The strongest player on the squad, Oates has the strength and the body (6-10, 285 lbs.) to battle some of UMass’ bigger opponents down low.
Freshman Micah Brand (Middletown, N.Y./Middletown/Milford Academy (Conn.)) could see more playing time as a freshman than many UMass frosh before him. Milford Academy’s valedictorian, Brand brings skills and a head for the game. How well he takes the physical abuse in the rugged Atlantic 10 Conference is one of the question marks on this gifted 6-11 student-athlete.
“Micah is unproven because he’s a freshman but he has a lot of skills and I think it’s just a matter of time before he becomes a real good player for us BUT he has to get stronger,” said Flint.
Brand comes to Amherst with good credentials. Listed by Full Court as the 15th best senior center in the scholastic ranks last season, Brand is among the top-100 recruits overall after averaging 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots a game his senior year at Milford.
At power forward will be wiry senior Chris Kirkland (Timmonsville, S.C./Sto Rox (Pa.)) who put it all together last season as one of the most improved players in the league. Tenth in the Atlantic 10 in rebounding, Kirkland was second on the team with 6.7 boards and third in scoring with 10.2 points per game. Perhaps the most encouraging numbers came at the end of the season, where in the final seven games of the year he averaged 18.1 points and 9.7 rebounds per contest. Numbers like that have coach Flint excited about the coming season.
“I thought at the end of the season, there wasn’t a better player in the league,” said Flint. “He’s going to be one of our primary scorers so we’ll be going to him more than we did last year. I think he can be a guy who consistently gives us double-doubles and a consistent double-figures scorer.”
Brand and sophomore Ronell Blizzard (Waterbury, Conn./Sacred Heart) will back up Kirkland at power forward. Blizzard saw limited playing time getting in only 10 games last season as a freshman, but he, too, has the skills to contribute. At 6-8, Blizzard can take the ball inside as well as hit the three-pointer from the perimeter. At only 196 pounds, Blizzard will benefit from the more up-tempo style of play expected from UMass in 1999-2000.
Small forward could provide an interesting dilemma for coach Flint. Defensive stalwart Mike Babul (North Attleboro, Mass./North Attleboro) has entrenched himself as a starter at the position with his smothering defense. His lack of an offensive game (5.2 ppg) keeps his starting role in a perilous position.
“Well, Mike is Mike,” said Flint. “He’s become one of the best defenders in the country, bar none, I don’t care what anybody says. I’d just like him to be a little bit more aggressive offensively but I know he’s going to give me a great effort and play outstanding defense day in and day out.”
An offensive challenge is expected from junior college transfer JoVann Johnson (Johnson City, Tenn./Science Hill/Wabash Valley J.C.). A very athletic player, Johnson averaged over 14 points a game last season at Wabash Valley Junior College. At 6-3, Johnson can score from the perimeter as well as beat a defender off the dribble and finish strong.
Junior Winston Smith (Summit, N.J./St. Patrick’s) saw action in 22 games last season and will provide depth at both forward positions. Syracuse transfer Eric Williams, from Brooklyn, N.Y., will sit out this season under NCAA transfer rules.
Senior Monty Mack is joined by fellow Massachusetts East Coaster Shannon Crooks (Everett, Mass./Everett/St. John’s) to form one of the best backcourts in the Atlantic 10 and perhaps the region.
Mack averaged over 18 points per game while leading the Minutemen in almost every offensive category a year ago. An All-America Candidate this year, he earned second team All-Conference honors last season and should be even more of a threat with the addition of Crooks in the backcourt.
“At the end of last season it was like one on four, one-on-five because Monty was the only person who really scored the ball for us,” said Flint. “I think Shannon will help Monty because he’s going to draw some of the opponents attention because he can score as well.”
Mack is among the top-10 shooters in UMass history, on a pace to break the career three-point scoring record and to score 2,000 points if he earns his fourth year of eligibility.
Crooks steps in as a scoring point guard after seeing limited playing time at St. John’s and sitting out last season at UMass. In high school he averaged 26.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 9.0 assists a game and finished his scholastic career with 1,743 points.
Crooks will also provide tough defense and will probably assume the opponents top offensive guard, a responsibility that Mack carried last year along with all of his scoring duties.
Junior Jonathan DePina (Boston, Mass./South Boston) will provide depth at the point guard position. After a productive season as a freshman in a backup role, DePina struggled as a sophomore and saw his playing time cut in half.
Johnson, more comfortable at small forward, will also back up Mack and help keep Mack fresh instead of forcing him to play every minute of every game as he did last season. UMass will also have walk-on Darryl Denson (Springfield, Mass./Springfield Central/Milford Academy (Conn.).
Scheduling at UMass in the ’90s has followed one credo: Anybody, Anytime, Anywhere. This year will be no different. UMass has scheduled 10 NCAA Tournament teams and four conference champions this year.
The home schedule boasts a pair of nonconference NCAA participants from a year ago with Villanova and Texas coming to the Mullins Center. In-state rival Boston University arrives in Amherst in early December while the home schedule kicks off with the Minutemen looking to avenge their worst loss of the season last year against the Thundering Herd of Marshall. UMass will take to the road against defending national champion UConn in the annual MassMutual “U” Game and Boston College in the Commonwealth Classic. The Minutemen will play some tough road games with trips to Detroit, Miami (to play Florida State in the Orange Bowl Classic) and Puerto Rico (where UMass may face Southern Illinois, Tennessee and UNC-Charlotte). And then there is the A-10 schedule, which just gets tougher and tougher each year.
This will be a different UMass team from years past. The plodding half court game has moved on to a more up-tempo style. The offense is not going to center on pounding the ball inside but will become more opportunistic while forcing the action.
Poor free throw shooting and a lack of consistency on offense were the culprits of a disappointing season a year ago. A season that head coach Bruiser Flint does not look to revisit.
“We didn’t lose those games because we didn’t have talent, we lost games because we didn’t have the right attitude,” said Flint. “We weren’t a fist, we were a hand. We played more as individuals than we did as a team. I think we understand that now.”
The summer of 1999 has been a long one in Amherst, but with the right attitude and hard work this winter, the Minutemen will be putting their fist down on another winning season.