MHERST -- Bruiser Flint is quiet, sort of like a card player who thinks he has a deadly hand, but needs more proof.
``I think we have a chance to be good,'' said the UMass men's basketball coach. ``And I think we're a better team than last year.''
Modest, cagey words, to be sure. Most Atlantic 10 types, based on the best recruiting class in Flint's four-year tenure, as well as the return of captain Monty Mack for one final season, have the Minutemen pegged for a top-three finish in the conference's 11-team chase.
That should produce an NCAA tournament bid as well -- something Flint desperately needs after nearly losing his job last March.
Those pressures haven't abated. UMass athletic director Bob Marcum was set to fire Flint before the 17-16 Minutemen scratched together an 8-4 streak from Jan. 8 through Feb. 19, and then won their first two games in the A-10 tournament. These moments, as well as last March's one-and-out NIT bid, won't be enough this time to satisfy the athletic director or the university trustees -- many of whom still yearn for the John Calipari Big Party days. Marcum has loaded everything from declining attendance to slumping revenues on Flint's upcoming performance.
And Flint is not delusional. He knows what he's putting on the line against one of the toughest UMass schedules in his tenure, including non-conference road games against Marquette, Oregon, Ohio State and No. 6 North Carolina.
``The main thing I learned last year is that they don't just want you to win -- they want you to win big,'' said Flint. ``Three postseason appearances mean that you're winning, so they're not just telling you to win. But no one has actually told me we have to make the NCAA's or else, either.''
Deep down, though, Flint knows the answer to this rough bottom line. Anything short of the NCAA tournament will probably cost him his job next April.
``I'm just going to coach my team and prepare to win games,'' he said. ``No one can put more pressure on me than I place on myself. I've been on the job long enough to know that some things take care of themselves, and those things don't change.
``I'm not the type of person to sit around and worry, like, `Oh my God, will I have a job at the end of this year?' '' said Flint. ``I can't let it get to me. If there's one thing I learned from what happened last year, it's that if I don't panic, then neither will my team.''
But for the first time since Lari Ketner's sophomore season in 1996-97 -- the first of two straight NCAA appearances by a Flint-led team -- the coach may actually have a crew that deserves to be part of the expanded 65-team field.
And though Mack has already stepped out on the wrong foot with an arrest last month on shoplifting charges, he will benefit greatly from the new depth.
Transfer big men Jackie Rogers and Eric Williams, along with freshman swingmen Willie Jenkins and Jameel Pugh, should make a serious dent in last year's two worst problems -- rebounding and scoring balance. Jenkins, in particular, has emerged as a surprise with the best jump shot this side of Mack.
Sophomore Micah Brand has added 11 pounds to his 6-foot-11 frame, and reportedly more consistency to his game, including the best offensive skills of any big man on the team. Center Kitwana Rhymer, now spared of being the only rebounder and shot blocker on the floor, can focus on overcoming his propensity for foul trouble. Rogers comes with major rebounding and post offense credentials.
Everett's Shannon Crooks gets another season to run the offense, and is, in Flint's words, ``much more relaxed this year.''
But success still comes down to Mack, who is anxious to eliminate the strain that was put on his game last season, when double- and triple-teams were a formality whenever the 6-1 guard curled off a pick to take a shot.
Indeed, beyond the now-departed Chris Kirkland's invaluable role as an undersized power forward, the UMass offense generally consisted of running Mack off multiple picks last winter.
``I was mad at myself sometimes,'' the South Boston HS product said. ``I felt like I wasn't doing enough for my team.''
That's why this wash of young talent is overdue. Mack, working on a second bachelor's degree in African American studies after earning the right to play a fourth and final season under revised Prop. 48 guidelines, finally has more than one teammate with a steady appetite for the ball.
``It should really take a load off,'' said Mack. ``I'm looking forward to having a great year, and I won't have to take so many shots this season.''
He will also be asked to play some part-time point guard this season. The coaching staff was floored when the NCAA clearing house ruled freshman Anthony Anderson ineligible five days before the official start of practice.
Anderson, from Lynn English, showed enough during informal workouts to make an early run at the starting point guard job. That role will now be shared by Crooks and Mack, with Jonathan DePina, another South Boston HS product, once again in the playmaking mix out of necessity.
``Me and coach talked about it,'' said Mack. ``There's just things I will have to get adjusted to. But I think it would help out my (NBA) prospects a lot.''
Not to mention the prospects for this on-the-edge team.