MHERST - It took more than two seasons, but Massachusetts junior forward Ronell Blizzard has gotten the point. The key to getting quality minutes on Bruiser Flint's team is playing consistent defense. Once an offensive-minded player, Blizzard changed his approach and is now more than ready to get off the bench and begin playing early and often.
The thing is, he never told Flint about his revelation. Blizzard figured Flint had enough problems as UMass endured its worst start in the fifth-year coach's tenure. He opted to let his play do the talking, and Flint took notice, using Blizzard as a defensive stopper in the late stages, but rarely in the first half.
Then backup power forward Jackie Rogers suffered a foot injury in Tuesday's loss at Connecticut. Blizzard got the break he wanted and was inserted early in the Minutemen's win at Boston University Thursday.
He took full advantage of the opportunity, recording career highs in rebounds (14) and blocks (7, the most since Marcus Camby in March 1996) to lead the Minutemen to a 68-52 win that snapped a six-game losing streak.
Blizzard hopes his good fortune continues tomorrow, when the Minutemen face undefeated Boston College in the Commonwealth Classic here. Against BU, the Waterbury, Conn., native put forth the kind of effort many believed he was capable of.
Even as Blizzard awaited his turn, his teammates and coaches say, he was one of the Minutemen's more upbeat players, cheering teammates during games and consoling them afterward. ''I just stay positive,'' said the 6-foot-8-inch Blizzard. ''With me not playing, that was a perfect opportunity to turn my back on our team because we were not playing well, but I haven't done that.
''I believe in myself and the team, especially guys like Monty Mack. He's one of the reasons I came here, because he's such a talented player. So I decided that when I came in when we were down at the end of the [Connecticut] game, I played hard to get a stop so we could give Monty an opportunity to do what he could do.''
In fact, Mack has struggled with his shooting all season. It has been one of the team's many woes, and Blizzard has worked hard to make sure he didn't add to them, being more attentive and working harder in preparation for games. ''Overall this whole year, his attitude has had a 100 precent increase,'' said teammate Micah Brand. ''Even though he doesn't know whether he's going to get in or not, he works hard in practice.''
Blizzard said he has only himself to blame because his time to shine has taken so long to arrive. ''Honestly, from the very beginning, things haven't gone well for me here,'' he said. ''I came into college basketball with the wrong frame of mind, coming out of high school. I was focused more on offense, and I thought if I could show Coach Flint I could score, everything could take care of itself.''
Blizzard averaged 16.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 6.5 blocks per game at Sacred Heart High School. He also showed outside shooting ability. Yet when Blizzard got opportunities at UMass, he didn't score, and the other facets of his game were lacking. That's why he played in just 10 of 30 games as a freshman and logged just 211 minutes last season, the fewest of any of this year's returnees.
''I put him in the lineup in Puerto Rico last year, but he didn't score and then he didn't rebound or defend, either. So I told him, `Now you're going back to the bench,''' said Flint. The coach said he is pleased Blizzard has played well lately because he is a model student and teammate.
''I used to always tell him, `I never keep you on the bench because of your ability,''' said Flint. ''He is talented, but I told him he has to show me he can fight through things. ''
Blizzard has done just that. He said he considered transferring but always wanted to finish where he started.
''Honestly, '' he said, ''my heart is with the UMass basketball team. Whenever I considered [transferring], I always said to myself the grass isn't always greener on the other side. Things haven't always gone my way here, but I have a desire to be successful, and if I am successful I'd like it to be here.''
Against BU, Blizzard took a big step toward success, and he will likely see more playing time if he keeps playing well. He could be experiencing a turnaround similar to that of Chris Kirkland, who went from a little-used player to an All-Conference performer last year. All because Blizzard opted to focus on the intangibles rather than just offense.
''My only regret,'' Blizzard said, ''is that it took me so long to realize that.''