e wasn't given a chance last year.
And it's because in his first game as a member of the Massachusetts men's basketball team, Willie Jenkins' confidence was tampered with.
In the first half of his debut against Iona on Nov. 18, 2000, Jenkins received the ball on the left wing, penetrated into the lane, and pump faked from about 12 feet. His defender off the ground, the 6-foot-6-inch, 200 pound guard from Memphis, Tenn. went up for the first shot of his college career.
Seconds later, the ball caromed of the left side of the backboard, a far miss. After the next whistle, Jenkins was on the UMass bench with coach James "Bruiser" Flint, a place where he spent the rest of the season.
Willie wasn't given a shot, and his 75 total minutes last season are a testament to that.
It's really hard for a basketball player to find a rhythm when he's constantly looking over his shoulder. It's tough to play this game in fear that one mistake will lead to sideline punishment. And it's difficult to practice hard every day, when the only incentive is that same old warm-up suit.
Fortunately for Jenkins, that time has now passed. This year, there's a new genie in town and opportunities will be granted. It's his job now to take advantage of them.
"So far it's going great," Jenkins said of new coach Steve Lappas' brand of ball. "Coach Lappas is giving everybody a chance to show what they've got and play hard. All he wants everybody to do is play hard.
"And the way it looks, I think we can go to the NCAAs this year."
That is a brave declaration, of course, but it's the result of a positive attitude, which is of the greatest connotation for the Minutemen. What it means is that Jenkins has been recharged as a gym rat, and remains prepared to contribute in the ways he know he can and should.
"I don't have to score this year," said Jenkins, alluding to several of the "scorers" on this year's roster. "All Coach wants me to do is play defense, rebound, and hit the open shot when I have it."
"Willie...didn't get a chance last year," said Lappas, who started Jenkins in UMass' first exhibition this year. "But he's hungry and worked very hard in the preseason."
Contenders aren't built with 12 guys who can put up 20 points every night. The teams who earn their way to the postseason are the squads built of several different types of company.
Willie isn't the guy who will be put in to hit the clutch shot in the closing seconds. He's the guy who will play substantial minutes because of his love to give opponents hell on their offensive end.
"Defense is really just effort," said Jenkins, who also mentioned that one his goals this summer was losing weight and adding muscle. "Anybody can play defense; it's just how bad you want to play it."
Strength is key when it comes to playing grueling hoop security. A stronger body usually leads to a quicker body, and that faster step usually leads to heightened enemy irritation.
"I took the weight ball, got into a squat position and slid from one side of the court to the other end," Jenkins said of his summer workouts. "I had to get stronger and I learned that mostly from guarding Monty [Mack last year in practice]."
Defensive prowess depends largely on a player's strength and conditioning, but toughness is another thing all in itself. And that's something that can really only be learned when whistles are absent.
You learn that part of the game on the blacktop.
"When you go up for the rebound, there ain't no such thing as fouls," said Jenkins, who in his Memphis streetball days faced up against such players as Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, Vincent Askew, Elliot Perry, Lorenzen Wright, Todd Day and Corey Beck.
Look for Jenkins to play with that same mentality this season, because he surely has something to prove. And there's no question he wants to have a say in what this teams does this year.
There's a reason Jenkins was so highly touted by several top-notch schools such as Auburn and Alabama. There's a reason he was named Most Valuable Player of the 2000 Memphis Summer Shootout, beating out last year's Big-East All-Rookie team selection, Darius Rice (Miami). There's a reason he's playing Division I basketball.
Willie just needs to keep that in mind.