ot long after University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach Bruiser Flint was retained for another year, the Minutemen players and coaches began talking about the 2000-01 season and a return to the NCAA Tournament with optimism.
Can it happen? Following are 10 questions and answers that might be keys to the coming season:
1. Can Shannon Crooks be steady enough at point guard for the Minutemen to be successful? The junior from Everett will never draw comparisons to Utah guard extraordinaire John Stockton, and seems better suited to playing on the wing at times.
But the sometimes erratic or out-of-control guard seemed to improve as last season progressed.
He made better decisions and looked more under control throughout the Atlantic 10 Tournament and the NIT before breaking his nose. If he can build on that control and not revert to some bad habits, Crooks should have a good year.
2. Can Jameel Pugh do more than dunk? He didn't become one of the top 100 players in the country last year just by leaping over the competition, but so far nobody seems to be exactly sure what role the Sacramento native will play.
Pugh's offensive strengths will be in the open floor and driving to the basket. His athleticism and strength also could make him a better-than-average defender.
3. With their added size, will the Minutemen still run? UMass coach Bruiser Flint says yes, and adds that his team's potential to be a better rebounding team would make it easier to do so.
"In order for us to run, we have to rebound," he said. "We're going to play a little bit faster. A lot of it last year, too, was that we had a point guard (Crooks) that could actually get by somebody. That was one of the big differences."
4. How much will the lingering effect of Monty Mack's shoplifting arrest and suspension distract the team? If at all, the effects are likely to be minimal. The incident will be nearly two months old by the time the season starts, giving him ample time to get refocused on basketball.
Opposing fans have targeted Mack before, and he's still been able to put up lofty numbers (19.8 points per game last year).
5. Which UMass opponent could be the biggest surprise? Whoever UMass faces in the second game of the tournament in Charlotte - Richmond or the College of Charleston - will scare the Minuteman coaches.
First, both are expected to win their respective leagues. Also, UMass is playing North Carolina, a top 10 team, the night before, and win or lose, there may be a letdown.
The season opener against Iona also looms as dangerous. Without Mack, who still will be suspended, someone will have to emerge as an offensive threat right away. Crooks, who picked up the slack when Mack missed the Fordham game last year, could be the one, but he will need to play iron-man minutes in a thin backcourt.
6. Can this be the year that UMass breaks the UConn jinx? This should be UMass' best chance in a while, since the young Huskies will be better later in the year than they are in November and December. How good UConn will be early on depends on how quickly the replacements for departed Khalid El-Amin, Jake Voskuhl and Kevin Freeman adapt. And UMass has newcomers of its own who will need to get used to the college game.
The teams play Dec. 12 in Hartford.
7. Who will start at small forward? Pugh? Willie Jenkins? Winston Smith? Ronell Blizzard? Smith, a captain, probably will get a shot at the spot in the season opener (Nov. 18 Iona), but he'll have to play well to retain it. Pugh comes highly touted and the coaching staff has raved about Jenkins.
Don't count out the enigmatic Blizzard, either. He's been impressive in spurts and if he strings several of those spurts together, he might be able to escape the end of the bench.
8. Can Micah Brand become one of the best big men in the country? His tantalizing potential translated into production in spurts last year. Added muscle, confidence and experience has people believing that he can blossom into an excellent big man. Brand is one of those who believes, and is expecting a great year.
"I can be as good as I allow myself to be," he said at media day.
He allowed himself to be pretty good in the Greater Springfield Pro-Am League this summer, where he showed off a new collection of offensive moves, including shooting range that extends beyond the 3-point arc.
9. Do the Minutemen need to make the NCAA Tournament for Bruiser Flint to keep his job? That is the conventional thinking. The athletic department waited nearly three days to announce Flint wasn't getting fired last year, which has to mean it was at least considered, so another year outside the tournament might push him out the door.
But a good recruiting class and an improved record - from 14-16 in 1998-99 to 17-16 in 1999-00 - was good enough to push the decision in his favor last year, and there are signs that point to more improvement this season.
The Minutemen recruited well again and believe they can get to the NCAA Tournament, which could change the topic from Flint's expulsion to his extension.
10. Can this team make the NCAA Tournament? It can. But will it? That's another can of worms altogether.