MHERST - As the final seconds of the clock ticked off in the University of Massachusetts' 54-47 loss to Temple in the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament last March, one thing was obvious to UMass fans.
The Minutemen, who had played well, simply weren't big enough to beat the beefy Owls.
Kitwana Rhymer got into foul trouble down the stretch. Without him, UMass couldn't counteract Temple's vast size advantage as Kevin Lyde and Lamont Barnes had their way in the paint.
That wasn't the only problem. With undersized Chris Kirkland playing power forward, the Minutemen spent many a game being greatly outrebounded.
One of former coach John Calipari's axioms was, "If you don't have a post presence, you're a fraud." Despite Rhymer's often-solid play, the Minutemen still lacked the size inside to fulfill their former coach's definition of legitimacy.
UMass coach Bruiser Flint never had the luxury of putting Rhymer and sophomore backup center Micah Brand on the floor at the same time last year, because if both big men got into foul trouble, he didn't have anyone else who could play center. Opponents could concentrate on boxing out whichever big man was on the floor.
"Last year (for opponents) it was like, 'Keep Rhymer off the boards because you don't have to worry about anybody else," Flint said.
That likely won't be the case this year. In addition to Rhymer and Brand, the Minutemen have two more inside players. Eric Williams, who sat out last year after transferring from Syracuse, likely will back Rhymer up at center, as Brand will move to power forward.
Jackie Rogers throws down against the California All-Stars.
"Jackie has great energy. The kid just runs," Flint said. "He's gonna battle you. He shoots the ball a little better than I thought he would. Our big guys are big and he scores on those guys. He rebounds against those guys. If he can do it against those guys he'll be OK come game time."
Flint said the new depth gives the team far more flexibility.
"There's going to be nights where we get into foul trouble and one guy is going to play more," Flint said. "We have a lot more options and a lot more fouls to give than last year. Last year if one of my big guys, especially Kit, got into foul trouble, we were in trouble. This year I don't necessarily have to worry about that."
Williams set a goal in the exhibition games for 10 rebounds per game. He grabbed nine the first night and 10 the second night. He showed good rebounding instincts in both games and was effective keeping balls alive, tipping rebounds to his teammates that he couldn't get to himself.
"I thought Eric did a great job rebounding the ball," Flint said afterward.
"I'm looking forward to showing people that I can play at a high level of Division I basketball," Williams said.
The added inside scoring presence will give the guards some breathing room as well.
"If we can score in the post, that means people have to double down and that will free things up somewhat on the perimeter," Flint said.
Bruiser hopes Micah Brand will step it up in 2000-01.
Brand seemed to have the confidence to go with his seemingly immense potential. But he struggled in both exhibition games.
"He's playing tentative right now and I don't know why," Flint said. "We'll get to the bottom of it. I just want him to be more aggressive."
Still, Flint has high hopes for Brand.
"Last year at times physically I didn't think I could put him in games. He just got overwhelmed. I don't think that will happen this year," Flint said. "I think the kid has an unbelievable amount of potential."
Flint and Brand talked Monday in practice and Brand proclaimed himself ready for Saturday's opener against Iona (7 p.m. Mullins Center).
"Bruiser and I sat down and had a little talk, and he said the way I practice is the way he wants me to play in the games," Brand said. "I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to go out and perform and when I made mistakes I got down on myself. Starting Saturday, if I make a mistake, I'll just get over it an get on to the next thing."