MHERST - Standing at the top of the key, Shannon Crooks dribbles with one hand and points with the other.
"Willie," Crooks shouts across the practice floor to freshman swingman Willie Jenkins, while pointing to a spot just behind the 3-point line. "Willie, there."
Jenkins obliges, sprinting to the spot. When Crooks feeds him the ball, he promptly swishes a jumpshot.
Crooks nods approvingly to Jenkins as the two backpedal down the court to play defense.
With four new players expected to contribute this year for the University of Massachusetts Minutemen, the point-guard position takes on greater importance. After logging most of the minutes last year at the position, Crooks, a junior, is ready for the added responsibility, said UMass coach Bruiser Flint.
Former point guard Bruiser Flint pushes hard on his current guard Shannon Crooks.
Crooks said he's well ahead of where he was at this time last year.
"I know most of the plays from last year. I feel more of a leadership role because I'm one of the older guys now," Crooks said. "I feel a lot more mature on the court because I know a lot of things already. A lot of guys last year were already established. They were helping me.
"Now it's my turn to help the younger guys," he continued. "They don't want to do wrong, so they're willing to listen more."
It wasn't an easy first year for Crooks. His tendency to get out of control was a frequent cause for concern.
Flint recruited two other players who could play the point, signing Jarrett Kearse and Anthony Anderson. However, academics kept Kearse out of UMass altogether and kept Anderson out for this season, leaving Crooks and senior Jonathan DePina as the team's only experienced point guards.
"Last year he had to feel his way through it a little," Flint said. "For a first year player, we put a lot of responsibility on him. I don't think he was necessarily ready for it. Now you're a second-year player. You should be ready. I think he looks at it that way."
Both coach and player emphasized that having last season together will make this year smoother.
"I think I know what to expect from him," Flint said. "He knows what to expect from me and what I expect from him and that makes a huge difference."
Crooks said Flint, a former point guard himself, is still tough on him but that he's gotten better at accepting the criticism.
"He still gets on me because I play point guard and he needs to instill in me what I need to do," Crooks said. "I need to coach on the floor. He's a little more lenient now because I pretty much know what to do as far as talking to guys, showing guys where to go. He doesn't have to say too much to me. I listen a lot better and learn not to talk back and keep my mouth shut and nod my head."
Had Kearse or Anderson made the grade, Crooks still would have seen playing time, at point guard, at shooting guard or in a three-guard set. DePina stood to lose the most playing time by either one's addition, but circumstances being what they are, the senior point guard will be asked to contribute heavily again.
"Jonathan has to be ready," Flint said. "I want him to play well. I told him that. He's going to get his opportunities to play. I just don't want Jonathan to turn the ball over. When his head is in the right place, he's fine. He has to be focused.
"He says sometimes he comes to the game feeling like he doesn't know if I'm going to play him that much this game," Flint continued. "That means you're not ready. That's when you throw the ball away and are indecisive in your shot selection. You have to be focused every night. For him, there's a short measure of error."
At media day, Flint said that even Monty Mack could log some time at the point, a skill that would help his chances reaching the NBA.
"If he's going to have the opportunity to play at the next level, he's going to have to be able to do that," Flint said. "For Monty, the toughest thing about point guard is, you have to think about the other four guys. Do they know what position they're supposed to be in?"
While Flint would be willing to use Mack at the point, that likely would occur more in the event of fouls, ineffective play from Crooks or DePina, or injury, than as a regular occurrence.
"He's like a third quarterback," Flint said. "If we really need him, he'll be out there."