MHERST — The University of Massachusetts men's basketball team is enjoying an early Christmas present this week: No games.
At this point, even final exams — probably seem like more fun than what's been happening on the court. And as the Minutemen have stumbled to a 2-7 start, even coach Bruiser Flint's defenders have found themselves hard pressed to chalk up it up solely to forces outside his control.
As the Minutemen fail to show significant improvement, and by their own admission have been playing without confidence, fingers are being pointed at the coach as never before. Flint says there's time to rally, though he knows that time may also be running out.
"It's been a long road," he said after Sunday's 74-65 loss to Boston College. "But there's still a long road to go."
Sources close to UMass basketball say athletic director Bob Marcum, who is out of town this week, is committed to finishing the season with Flint. Last year, Marcum said he viewed the season in three segments — non-conference games, league play and the postseason.
One segment has been a disaster, but the other two have yet to be played. And after last spring's controversy over Flint, Marcum seems determined to remove any question of whether he gave the coach a fair chance.
Even so, the names of candidates such as Marshall's Greg White (the coach at Marcum's alma mater who is 2-1 against Flint) are surfacing for 2001-2002. And sources say Marcum is even considering deposed Indiana coach Bob Knight, who would pack what is now a half-empty arena.
Meanwhile, Flint's team has crumbled against the weight of an admittedly tough schedule, looking inconsistent and often disorganized. With a Dec. 29 game in Charlotte, N.C., against North Carolina looming, UMass is fighting to avoid a total collapse.
In the process, some older criticisms of Flint — primarily that the offense is too predictable — have been joined by questions of whether he's stunting his young players' development by not using them.
Freshman Willie Jenkins has averaged six minutes per game, and Jameel Pugh has played 11 minutes all season. Pugh's eight-minute, seven-point debut against Connecticut suggested these raw but exciting new faces could inject new life — as opposed to staying with veterans who might make fewer technical mistakes, but whose upside is more limited.
Monty Mack (27.7 percent shooting) has struggled, and the Minutemen are again functioning without a natural point guard. It also didn't help Flint's case that at least two teams (Holy Cross and Oregon) said they'd figured out the UMass offense beforehand.
Of the post players, Kitwana Rhymer has come alive after a slow start. But Micah Brand — who Marcum has compared to Marcus Camby — has shown only flashes of the brilliance expected of him, and Flint benched him against Boston College.
New forwards Jackie Rogers and Eric Williams have been largely disappointing. Rogers has played with spirit but not nearly the sophistication necessary for this level. And after averaging 20.8 minutes per game in the first four contests, Williams has averaged only 6.4 minutes in his last five.
And perhaps most unexpected has been the defense, which has allowed at least 78 points in five of the last seven games.
Instead of getting better through challenging competition, the Minutemen have wilted under its strain. Marcum is tired of the excuse that the schedule is the problem, and losses in winnable games to Holy Cross and Marquette, plus home defeats to Providence and Boston College, have weakened the argument that it is.
Marcum is not expected to make any moves — or comments — until the season is over. But if UMass doesn't improve dramatically and soon, public comments may be unnecessary, anyway, as Flint's dismissal shifts from a matter of debate to only a matter of time.