he Minutemen head into the Thanksgiving holiday with a 1-1 record and a new, exciting brand of up-tempo and fast break basketball. On Monday, coach Bruiser Flint's team plays its home opener against Marshall and remains in Amherst for a Thursday night game against Boston University. A week from Saturday, UMass plays Boston College in the Commonwealth Classic. Prior to the Thanksgiving break, Flint talked about his team's start and previewed the Marshall and BU games.
Following the Connecticut game last Monday, I received about 20 phone calls from people telling me how much they enjoyed the way the team played and how much different our players looked compared to last year's team.
I know the reason for those comments: The Connecticut game, as well as our season opener against Iona, were exciting to watch. The pace was faster, the action more frenetic and our guys played with more energy. Sometimes fans just want to see exciting basketball; they don't always care what the outcome is. I'll take exciting basketball and a win every time!
Let me briefly recap the Iona game because it was an important win for us. If you remember, Iona really whacked us at home last year. I knew that if we didn't come ready to play this year, we would get beat again, especially on the road in New Rochelle, N.Y. in a small and hot gymnasium. The Gaels are very good at home.
The Mulcahy Campus Center was the hottest gym I have ever been in. Iona coach Jeff Ruland was literally stripping off his clothes during the game. I personally sweat through my shirt and tie, but I never loosened my knot. You know my motto: "Never let them see you sweat." You have to be cool, baby!
Although we trailed at halftime, we started to turn the game around with five minutes left in the half. That's when our defense intensified, primarily because Mike Babul started to shut down Iona's top scorer, Tariq Kirksay. As a team we began playing with confidence and composure. Kirksay had 15 points at the half, and finished with 20 for the game. Mike gave us the defensive boost we needed. We scored 85 points, a tribute to our new up-tempo style, but more importantly, we played 11 players. Anthony Oates and Ronell Blizzard came off the bench and combined to play 14 valuable minutes.
I thought Shannon Crooks was solid in his debut with us and our guard play with Jonathan DePina and Monty Mack really controlled the flow of the game. All three scored in double figures. That kind of offensive production is exactly what we need this season.
The Connecticut game was played earlier this year to accommodate television. In this case, ESPN chose the time slot that it wanted us to play and everyone agreed. I had no problem with a late-November game with the Huskies.
Against the defending national champions, we played hard. I think it we could have won, but we didn't execute at key times and mistakes are costly against a team like UConn. Physically, I think Connecticut wore us down. Connecticut's size, in my opinion, was the difference. Our guys battled, though, and I thought Kitwana Rhymer (17 rebounds) was phenomenal against an endless stream of Uconn big men.
In last week's column, I said our guys wouldn't be intimidated by going to Gampel Pavilion to play Connecticut, and they weren't. UConn is tough at home. They have lost only nine games since moving into Gampel, but much like the Iona game, our guys didn't rattle. They kept their composure. If this game were played later in the season, maybe things would be different. I am certainly not taking anything away from Jim Calhoun's team. They are very good and will be in the national championship hunt.
It is hard to believe the Thanksgiving holiday is already here. Some of our players who live close to campus will go home for Thanksgiving and invite a fellow teammate. Some other players will come to my house, have a nice dinner and watch the football games. If you are wondering, we don't practice on Thanksgiving! We will be back to work on Friday though.
On Friday, I'll spend the evening at home watching the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic that features Temple and Indiana. NCAA regulations prohibit teams from scouting opponents in person, so I'll use the ESPN broadcast to check out Temple. I am pretty familiar with the Owls, and it's too early in the season to think about them. On Saturday we play Marshall, the other opponent during the 1998-99 season that whacked us to the point of embarrassment.
Marshall plays in the Mid-American Conference and returns all five starters from last year's 16-11 team. Our backcourt will be tested because Marshall has their own talented guards with 6-foot-4 Cornelius Jackson, the MAC's returning assist leader, and 6-foot Travis Young, a hot shooting junior. The Thundering Herd have an exceptional frontcourt player in J.R. VanHoose, the first freshman in school history to lead the team in scoring (14.7 ppg) and rebounding (8.1 rpg) in the same season. VanHoose is a former "Mr. Basketball" in Kentucky and at 6-foot-9 will be a real challenge for our frontcourt. Marshall also returns 6-foot-6 Derrick Wright and 6-foot-5 Deon Dobbs, both seniors. The Herd also have another former Kentucky "Mr. Basketball" on the roster, 6-foot-7 Tamar Slay, who has exceptional offensive skills.
I guarantee you it will be a good game against a quality opponent. I look forward to having a raucous homecourt advantage on Saturday and again on Thursday night against Boston University.
As far as BU is concerned, the Terriers are picked around sixth in the 10-team American East Conference. Thursday will be a big game for BU. They are renewing a once intense game with a state rival and will be out to prove something. BU was a little down last year (9-18, 5-13), but has good players. I am familiar with BU's roster. I particularly like senior guard Mike Costello and senior forward Jean Avebe. Those two are the nucleus of BU's team. More on Boston College as the game approaches.
See you Saturday!