MHERST — Kitwana Rhymer won the Atlantic 10's Player of the Week award for the first time in his career as a Minuteman. In last week's contests, Rhymer averaged 17 points and 12½ rebounds in two games, wins over Dayton and Duquesne.
Rhymer's extended presence on the floor was well-received to Bruiser Flint and company. New rules instituted by the NCAA over the summer had caused him frequent foul trouble early in the season. In the first four games of the 2000-01 campaign, he fouled out twice, played 14 minutes per game and only collected an average of 3 rebounds. Since Atlantic 10 play has kicked in, Rhymer has really found his groove with averages of 31+ minutes, 10.6 rebounds with just over 3 fouls.
From the free throw line, Rhymer's last three games have also been outstanding. In the A-10 honored week, he shot 12-14 from the charity stripe, which has been consistently less-than-charitable to the Minutemen for years. Rewind one more game to the one-point loss at St. Bonaventure, when Rhymer kept the Minutemen in the game almost single-handedly. He hit 8 of 10 free throws to keep things close when field goals were hard to come by: only one, a Mack 3-pointer, in the last nine minutes. Lump those three games together and Rhymer connected on over 85% of his free throw attempts.
Oh, and the 19 points he scored against Dayton on Thursday? Tied his career high.
Rhymer also has the opportunity to earn a second senior season. If he should complete all undergraduate coursework by August, he has the option to come back for his 4th year of eligibility. Teammate Monty Mack and former Minuteman Tyrone Weeks have taken advantage of this chance in the past.
Congratulations Kit on the well-deserved recognition.
Rhymer's numbers for the week:
fg ft rb min m-a m-a o-t a pf tp blk to stl -------------------------------------------------------- vs Dayton Rhymer 37 7-11 5-6 3-13 3 2 19 1 1 0 vs Duquesne Rhymer 33 4-9 7-8 6-12 1 3 15 5 1 2 -------------------------------------------------------- averages 35½ 55% 86% 12½ 2 2½ 17 3 1 1
MHERST - With the University of Massachusetts trailing Dayton on Thursday, 52-50, with 5:30 left in the game, Kitwana Rhymer outleapt Dayton's Keith Waleskowski to snare the rebound of a Winston Smith shot off the glass.
Upon landing, Rhymer pogo-ed right back up and laid the ball in while being fouled by Dayton's Sam Smith.
As he strode to the foul line, Rhymer pumped his fist and howled with delight.
He made that free throw and three others down the stretch, as the Minutemen held on to win. As he and his teammates exchanged congratulatory hugs and handshakes, the 6-10 senior center beamed.
The free throws capped a 19-point, 13-rebound effort for Rhymer, and the smile signified just how far his season had turned around.
"It feels good. I overcame the problems I was having. I'm rebounding, I'm blocking shots and I've been able to score inside," Rhymer said.
In the first three games of 2000-01 season combined, Rhymer couldn't match his Dayton numbers, as his early play fell well short of preseason expectations.
The fact that there were expectations at all was a feat in itself for the one-time "project", but that was hardly comforting at the time.
Rhymer, who is foul-prone anyway, was suffocating under the NCAA's mandate that officials cut down contact in the post. He was averaging under 15 minutes per game and couldn't seem to get into the flow at either end of the floor. Foul trouble kept him on the bench, stunting what had been his rapid improvement as a Minuteman.
When Rhymer first arrived at UMass prior to the 1997-98 season, the big man from the Virgin Islands via the Bronx had some unattractive labels floating around him. Raw. A project. Career backup. Practice body.
"I thought he could be a good athlete for us. His high school coach didn't think he could do this," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said before joking, "He thinks the kid is on (performance-enhancing) drugs or something."
After Rhymer averaged just over 10 points per game in high school, the tags "future All-Atlantic 10 player" or "force to be reckoned with" would have seemed laughable.
He had to sit out his first year as a Prop. 48 nonqualifier and started his sophomore year (1998-99) slowly, as an ankle sprain added to the already accumulated rustiness in his game.
But as the year progressed, Rhymer's impressive rebounding instincts earned him playing time, and his enthusiasm made him a crowd favorite.
Last year, his first as a starter, a role many people never thought he'd attain, Rhymer was a solid presence, averaging 7.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
Given the rate of his improvement from year to year during his UMass career, people were excited about Rhymer's potential for this year.
But as his early struggles coincided with the team's miserable start, fans were writing off Rhymer.
But, as often happens with officiating mandates, as the season has progressed, referees have lost their zealousness for calling minimal contact inside, and Rhymer has stopped using his forearms as weapons.
"A lot of it was the referees coming off it," Flint said. "But his positioning is a little bit better now."
"I'm keeping my hands off. I'm moving my feet," Rhymer said. "It seems like (the officials) slacked up a bit, which is good."
The result has been more floor and less bench for Rhymer, and more success for the Minutemen, who have won four of their last five.
In games where Rhymer has been on the floor for 30 minutes or more, he's averaged 14.1 points and 11.7 rebounds, numbers that would put him in among the Atlantic 10 leaders in both categories. He already leads the league with 2.25 blocked shots per game.
"I didn't even know I was up there (on the blocks leaders) until one of our managers told me. Now I got to work on getting up there in rebounding," Rhymer said.
He's not far off. Even with his limited minutes earlier in the year, his 7.7 rebounds are good for fifth in the A-10, and he's cracked the double-digit plateau in scoring average for the first time in his career, with 10.4 points per game.
He followed his Dayton performance with more standout numbers Saturday against Duquesne (15 points, 12 rebounds), accumulating two-game totals that earned him the A-10's Player of the Week honors.
Flint is pushing him for bigger awards.
"He's probably having an all-league type season and is probably the front-runner for the A-10 most-improved player," Flint said.
While his basketball is back on track, Rhymer is focused on keeping his academics there as well. Under NCAA legislation enacted this summer, former nonqualifiers are now eligible to earn their missed year back if they can complete their degree requirements in four years.
"I'm pretty close," said Rhymer, who is a sociology major. "I have to work hard next semester and probably take some classes in the summertime and I'll be fine. It's a big goal. I want my year back and I want my diploma."
"He's on course. He just has to do what he has to do," said Flint, who would be glad to have Rhymer's personality back, as well as his game. "He's worked really hard and he's improved. He's a great kid. He's very friendly. Everybody loves him."
If he does get that year back, he says he'll put it to good use.
"I still have a lot more to learn. I'm still raw," Rhymer said. "I still have to get my footwork down and I still have to get a whole lot better in the post."
But unlike in November, that learning process is enjoyable again.
"I'm getting the ball in the post. I'm going strong. I'm getting fouled," Rhymer said. "It's fun."
HILADELPHIA - The easy off-going court disposition makes it easy to forget that for Kitwana Rhymer, it's never been easy.
So when the University of Massachusetts senior center received this week's Atlantic 10 Player of the Week award, it wasn't hard to understand why the honor was so satisfying, even for someone who'd much rather talk about the team than himself.
"It's good to see good things come out of all the work, said Rhymer, who will be in action tonight when UMass (6-10, 4-1 Atlantic 10) plays La Salle (7-9, 1-4) at Tom Gola Arena. "Free-throw shooting is concentration, boxing out is finding a man and putting a body on him, shot blocking is timing, and watching film has helped me a lot on rebounding."
Rhymer has improved dramatically in all categories, and a 6-foot-10 raw talent who came to UMass with few offensive skills has emerged as one of the league's best and most versatile big men.
According to coach Bruiser Flint, it's a tribute to hard work. Rhymer leads the Atlantic 10 in blocked shots (2.25 per game), is fifth in rebounding (7.7) and is averaging 10.4 points, second on UMass to Monty Mack's 17.9.
"Kit's been able to do things I didn't expect him to do, and he's improved more than any player I've ever had here," Flint said. "Even last year, he might score 16 one game, but four the next. A lot of guys are stepping up for us now, but especially Kit."
Rhymer has 34 points, 25 rebounds and six blocked shots against the small-sized Dayton and Duquense lineups last week. La Salle presents a more physical challenge with Garrett Bragg (6-10) and James James Jordan in the frontcourt.
"Kit didn't play badly against (George Washington's) Attila Cosby and (St. Bonaventure's) Peter Van Passenn, two of the better big men in the league," Flint said.
Flint said he and Rhymer spoke around New Year's about the player working harder and the results are showing.
As a youth, Rhymer moved from the Virgin Island to the Bronx, N.Y., because it was safer - a reason not often given for moving to the Bronx. "The violence is the same, but in New York, it's more spread out than on a small island," Rhymer said.
In 1997, he sat out his freshman UMass season for academics. He can regain that lost year and play as a postgraduate next season if he graduates on time this spring.
"It's a lot of work," he said. "But I'll be fine."
Work is nothing new to Rhymer. He shoots 50 extra free throws before every practice, and in his last three games, he's made 23 of 28 - many under late-game pressure.
"I hear the crowd at the beginning of games, but then I focus it out," he said. "My eyes are focused on the basket. I might hear noise at the end of games, but not voices."
He also says that as each game develops, he picks up tips on defending and shot blocking, watching opponents to see their habits and instincts.
He's also developed a hook shot, the type rarely seen in modern basketball. "I think it's an easy shot," he said. "And even if you miss, the rebound doesn't usually go out that far, so you might get another chance."
What pleases Rhymer most though, is the recovery of his team.
"We're together like a family," he said. "When we were losing we still had faith in each other. That's basically all we had."
La Salle presents challenges other than size. The Explorers feature the league's No. 1 and No. 3 scorers in forwards Rasual Butler (20.8 points per game) and Victor Thomas (19.9).
"Rasual and Victor are good for 40 minutes a game, and La Salle also plays well at home," Flint said. "We're playing better, but this will not be an easy game."