MHERST — This is a team that seems to have plenty of everything — size, depth, challenges and expectations.
"I think we can be one of the better teams in the Atlantic 10 Conference — I can say that with confidence," University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach Bruiser Flint said. He thinks this year's team has a chance to return to the NCAA tournament, which the Minutemen have not reached since 1998. "But we've still got to go out and play."
The first game is Saturday night against Iona at the Mullins Center, followed two nights later by a game against Marquette in Milwaukee. The Minutemen think they're good. But how good?
"UMass is loaded," said George Washington coach Tom Penders, applying a little pressure to a fellow Atlantic 10 contender. "I think it's the best team since Bruiser has been the coach."
The Minutemen don't want to let unbridled optimism run amok, but they do think this team has talent. Last year, UMass was 17-16 and an NIT entry.
This year, Flint's fifth as coach, the Minutemen expect more.
"Once the new guys get used to the college atmosphere, they'll be fine," senior guard Monty Mack said. "I'm really excited about this team. It may be the most talented since I've been here."
Mack compares this year's team to the 1997-98 squad that went 21-11, losing to Saint Louis in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"We may not have the one single presence down low that we had with Lari (Ketner)," Mack said. "But we have (sophomore center) Micah Brand establishing himself, and a lot of other good players who can help us."
Mack will have to wait until the Marquette game to start helping. He's suspended through the Iona game after an October off-court incident.
He says he's learned his lesson, and there's little doubt that for all the new additions to the lineup, the offense revolves around a 6-foot-3 shooting guard who is already fifth on the all-time UMass scoring list with 1,617 points.
The difference this year is that he may not have to do so much of it by himself.
"Last year, we were a perimeter team that couldn't shoot," said Flint, mindful that UMass shot 42.9 percent last season, and that Mack's 41.5 percent figure came against defenses designed specifically to focus on him. "But Willie Jenkins and Jameel Pugh should help."
Jenkins (6-6) and Pugh (6-5) can play either shooting guard or small forward, and the two freshmen increase UMass' options at the perimeter. Junior college transfer Jackie Rogers and Syracuse transfer Eric Williams, each 6-8, expand their choices in the paint.
Crooks returns to run the point, with Mack also working out at the position in case senior Jonathan DePina struggles as the backup. Flint believes Crooks will be fine.
"He's been fantastic in preseason," the coach said. "Last year was a learning process for Shannon as a college point guard, and he rushed things sometimes. He's much more in control this year."
What the Minutemen want to control is their destiny. Against a schedule loaded with tough tests both in and out of conference, they feel they can increase the momentum restored a bit by last year's NIT berth.
Are the Minutemen back, and if so, how far? We'll soon see.
"I think we addressed our needs in the off-season," Flint said. "Last year, we didn't rebound well, and we had trouble guarding people in the post, among other things.
"I think we'll be better in those categories," he said. "But now, we have to go out and do it."