MHERST - It has now been five seasons since former UMass basketball coach John Calipari caught the last bus out of town, one step ahead of the NCAA bloodhounds.
Marcus Camby, Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso are long gone. Gone, too, is Bruiser Flint, the man who cleaned up the program after Calipari left, but who couldn't clean up in the standings.
In other words, welcome to a new, new era for UMass basketball: The post-post-Calipari era. With Flint and his entire coaching staff gone from last season, what we have, for the first time, is a Minutemen hoop team without a single person who played for or coached with Calipari.
Strange, isn't it? When the Minutemen took the Mullins Center floor last night and claimed a closer-than-it-should-have-been 66-59 win over Marist, they did so with players who were either in high school or junior high back in the spring of '96, when Coach Cal & Co. went to the Final Four.
Or, you could look at it this way: Kyle Wilson, a freshman guard from White Rock, British Columbia, was 12 years old when the Minutemen lost to Rick Pitino's Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Four.
``I remember that they had Camby, and those two guards,'' said Wilson, sounding like he was talking about the Crimean War. ``I followed the score, but that was about it.''
Said sophomore Willie Jenkins, who grew up in Memphis but followed the Minutemen in the '96 tourney: ``They looked like they were having fun, and I want the same thing for us.''
These are not your father's - or, more precisely, your big brother's - Minutemen. The current Minutemen don't have any can't-miss Cambys, and Steve Lappas, who replaced Flint as head coach, is an emotional fire hydrant of a man whose raspy, Bronx-accented Mullins Center rants can be heard as far away as the Orchard Hill dorms.
Unlike Flint, who ascended to the throne after serving a lengthy stint as an assistant coach to Calipari, the new guy brings a distinguished coaching record to Amherst, having won 230 games during his days at Manhattan and Villanova. But like Calipari and Flint before him, Lappas, faces the same challenges - not just winning games, but trying to build a statewide following for the Minutemen.
Face it: If you're driving from Amherst to Boston, interest in UMass basketball wanes once you hit Orange. Once you hit the Concord rotary, it's: U-What?
``I don't want to be a jerk and sound simplistic, but the bottom line is winning,'' said Lappas. ``It's winning that will get people interested in us again. I can't think of anything else. If you do, let me know.''
But Lappas made another comment that was even more on the money than the bit about winning. He also said that ``when you're not winning, or perceived as not winning, it's tough to sell the program.''
Perceived as not winning. See, the Minutemen weren't awful during Flint's five seasons as coach - they were 86-72 - but they went one-and-out in their two visits to March Madness. Thus, the perception: Losers.
``Winning big games is going to play a part,'' said senior guard Shannon Crooks. ``Not to take anything away from Arkansas-Little Rock or Marist, but winning the games against Oregon, UConn, Boston College and N.C. State is going to make or break us with the fans out there.''