MHERST - With five days of practice under their belts and a month remaining before the season opener against Iona (Nov. 18 at the Mullins Center), the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team is playing pretty well, according to coach Bruiser Flint.
"We're looking all right. Guys are picking up things a little quicker than I thought," Flint said. "It's real competitive out there. It's good to see."
After sitting out the 1999-2000 season, he's glad to be participating in practices that matter.
"Last year, Bru called me in and said I wasn't going hard enough and I looked bored," Williams said. "It was tough, but now I'm working hard because I know on the third of November (exhibition game vs. California All-Stars), I'm going to be playing."
After a year without enough eligible big men on campus, UMass has four - Williams, Kitwana Rhymer, Micah Brand and junior college transfer Jackie Rogers - who can help the team match up more effectively with some of its bigger opponents.
"Bru told us he's going to give everybody a chance to play if we work hard," Williams said. "I hope all four of us play. I feel if he keeps all the big men working hard, practice will stay competitive all the way to the postseason."
Flint said the first week of practice is basically fundamentals, setting the stage for the rest of preseason.
"We're out there screening and we always do defense. We've done man-to-man principles, some transition. We usually put in a couple of plays by the end of the first week. From there, work on your press. More man to man and things offensively. Once the second week starts, we do more five-on-five."
All three frontcourt starting jobs are up for grabs. Winston Smith, Ronell Blizzard and newcomers Willie Jenkins and Jameel Pugh will be in the mix to start at small forward, with the four big men mixing it up for the power-forward and center spots.
"It's been real competitive. Guys aren't as comfortable. Guys know their jobs are up for takes and they're going at it that way," said Flint, who added that the team's two exhibition games could go a long way toward determining starters. "You really don't know that stuff until you start playing the games. A guy might be great in practice, then game time comes and it's a little different."
Like many coaches, Flint has brought a sports psychologist in to speak with his team, as he has in the past. This year, he's doing it early in hopes of having his team in the right frame of mind to start the year.