he University of Massachusetts Minutemen begin the 1999-2000 season by playing two difficult road games against Iona and defending national champion Connecticut. Head coach James "Bruiser" Flint knows that getting off to a quick start is paramount in creating an identity and momentum for his young team. Prior to the Iona game, Flint recapped the Minutemen's two exhibition wins over the California and Converse All-Star teams and talked about the week ahead.
The exhibition games gave the coaching staff the opportunity to see new people playing under the lights. As a staff, we wanted to see how junior transfer guard Shannon Crooks and freshman center Micah Brand would perform in a UMass uniform. We were anxious to see how junior Kitwana Rhymer would react with added responsibility as a starter and how Jonathan DePina would play under our new up-tempo style.
All in all, I think everything went well. We won both exhibition games, worked on our faster-paced game plan, played under various conditions (man-to-man, zone, pressure, slowdown) and all of the aforementioned players responded to game situations that were presented.
In both exhibition games, fans got an idea on how we plan to play this year, not just in our upcoming games against Iona and UConn. We pushed the ball on offense as hard as we could and pressured the ball defensively as much as possible -- perhaps too much. Against Converse, we pressed ourselves into exhaustion. Against California we didn't play much defense in the last five minutes. We are aware of these shortcomings, but also understand that exhibition games are the time to work out the kinks, implement new strategies and tactics and give kids playing time.
While the teams and players in these games are not familiar to everyone, if you make a mistake you'll pay for it. For example, when one of our players was late on a defensive rotation, both California and Converse would capitalize. Those players are older and more experienced and can knock down shots that college players won't always make.
We scored 97 and 103 points in those two games without the services of Monty Mack, our leading scorer, who has been injured. That's a good sign that we have some offensive firepower. Our pressing, full-court game enabled us to score more and score especially well in transition. In my previous three years as head coach, we didn't always have the players to score as much. Furthermore, I didn't feel like our ballhandling was as good as this year's team. Against both Iona and UConn we will have four guys on the court (Mike Babul, Chris Kirkland, Crooks and Mack) who can handle the ball at all times.
A word about newcomer Crooks, the one player that fans always ask me about. Against California and Converse, people saw him play without the benefit of having Monty on the court. I think he felt a need to be offensive in our exhibition games and that's okay. But with Monty returning, Shannon will be a little different player and have a different role. But without a doubt, Shannon is a special talent. He has terrific athletic skills. But what I have been most impressed with so far is his temperament on the court. He is playing under control.
The Iona Game
No one has to remind the coaching staff or our players about how badly we were beaten by Iona last year. It might have been the worst game we played all season and to get blown out on our own floor … well … lets just say we are not looking past Iona even though Connecticut is our next game. If we don't play well against Iona, we will lose.
Believe me, I'd prefer not to start our season on the road. Without a doubt, we are the biggest game Iona will play at home. The Iona fans will be ready and the Iona players will be out to prove that last year's win over us wasn't a fluke. The Gaels have a First-Team All Conference player in Tariq Kirksay, a 6-foot-6 forward who averaged 13.3 points a game last year. In all, Iona has four starters returning (Kirksay, forward Dyree Wilson, guard Jason Young and guard Phil Grant). Iona also has three other good reserves back and a super freshman in 6-foot-8 Jermaine Small, who is expected to start.
If you remember watching Iona play last year, I don't need to remind you how athletic these players are. They all run the floor, attack the glass and play a tough brand of ball. They don't back down from anyone, most likely a trait they have inherited from their coach Jeff Ruland, who played at Iona in the school's glory days under Jim Valvano in the 1970s and also in the NBA with Washington and Philadelphia.
Following our game against Iona we play the defending national champion Huskies from UConn in the "U-Game" in Hartford. The game is televised on ESPN. Prior to our game, Connecticut will have faced Vermont and already played two good teams in Duke -- a win -- and Iowa -- and upset loss -- in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden.
I won't allow myself or the team to look past Iona and think about UConn. What can I say? The Huskies won the national championship last year and many people think there is enough talent at Connecticut to win it all again this year. We played Connecticut tough last year in Amherst and I know our guys aren't in awe of them. This type of early-season game serves as a good barometer as to the progress we will have made in preseason and against Iona.
We will play our first home game of the 1999-2000 season against Marshall on Nov. 29 and then host Boston University on Dec. 2 before playing in the Commonwealth Classic against Boston College on Dec. 4.
We are looking forward to starting the season against Iona and improving as a team. Our goal is to return to the NCAA Tournament.