MHERST - As is the case with most towering tandems on a basketball court, the relationship between 6-foot-10-inch senior center Kitwana Rhymer and 6-11 junior forward Micah Brand has come to be symbiotic, with the players feeding off each other.
Together they have emerged as a formidable duo on the University of Massachusetts basketball team, which has helped the Minutemen bolt to an unlikely 4-1 start under first-year coach Steve Lappas.
Rhymer is the team's undisputed swatmeister, having blocked 19 shots this season, and rebounding leader with 5.6 per game, while Brand ranks as the team's second-leading scorer (13.6 points per game) - with a team-leading field goal percentage of .558 (29 of 52) - and second-leading rebounder (4.8 per game).
''The biggest shots in those [first] four games have been the shots those two kids have made,'' said Lappas, whose team suffered its first setback with a 67-56 homecourt loss to Holy Cross Tuesday. ''Micah in three games, and Kit in the [Arkansas-Little Rock] game made the basket that put us ahead. Defensively, Kit's blocking four shots a game. He goes to N.C. State and in the first four minutes he set the whole tone [in the Minutemen's 69-62 victory last Saturday] by blocking four shots. He was a force. He let them know he was there. He changed the whole game.''
Rhymer and Brand.
Brand and Rhymer.
It doesn't matter who gets top billing because both are content to share the marquee. That much was evident last season when the Atlantic 10 recognized both as Most Improved.
''Without a doubt, that was a great honor,'' said Brand, following Thursday night's practice at the Mullins Center, where the Minutemen were preparing for their Commonwealth Classic showdown against No. 13 Boston College tonight at 8 at Conte Forum.
''We worked hard during the offseason and in the summer trying to get ready and get our chemistry right. It took us a while to get it going, but once conference play started, you could see it was just clicking and we won like seven, eight straight. It was just one of those things where the better we played together, the more the rest of the team fed off us and the more we fed off them.''
And when the two work cohesively, it can be a beautiful sight. It is not unlike a ballet of big men.
''It's like each of us got each other's back,'' said Rhymer. ''He sets 'em up, I block 'em. I set 'em up, he'll block 'em. That's how it's supposed to go. If I don't get a rebound, he'll get a rebound. The twin tower thing? That's how it's supposed to go. You're supposed to be dominant.''
Sort of like San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan and David Robinson?
''Yeah, like Robinson and Duncan,'' Rhymer smiled.
So, who is Duncan and who is Robinson?
''To tell you the truth, I think Micah is more of a Duncan,'' Rhymer said. ''I'm more of an Admiral, because I like to tell people what to do and stand at attention. Besides, my father's an Army man in the US Virgin Islands in St. Croix.''
Still, given his background, it would seem Rhymer would be more like Duncan. After all, both hail from the Virgin Islands, and both were swimming enthusiasts who came late to basketball. Rhymer didn't start playing until he was a sophomore at St. Raymond's in the Bronx.
''Yes, that's true,'' Rhymer acknowledged, ''but Micah's got the same kind of moves as Timmy does.''
Lappas, though, drew a more relative comparison to a frontcourt he once fielded at Villanova: Jason Lawson and Chuck Kornegay.
''Kit is such a good defender and Micah is a better offensive player than Kornegay,'' Lappas said. ''I don't know if I ever had a better combination of two guys.''
Better than Mike Bradley and Brooks Sales? ''Obviously, Mike Bradley was terrific and Brooks was OK,'' Lappas said. ''I think this is probably where I've had two guys who were ... ''
In Bradley's class? ''No maybe not quite that,'' Lappas chortled. ''That's taking it a little high now. He shot 70 percent last year. But they're two really good players who can score and defend in the 4 and 5 position. They're solid guys and they're good guys, too. They work really hard and they understand the game.''
More important, the understanding they share is this: Because of how well they complement each other, if one isn't on his game, then the other is not likely to be on his.
''Coach Lappas told Kit he'd probably be doubled all year, because people know how he plays down low,'' said Brand, a native of Middletown, N.Y. ''They'll try to do a lot of things to get him off his game, so the better I play, the more I can open things up for him. And the better we play, the more it opens up things for the guards. Everything kind of opens up for everybody.
''The more we complement each other - me hitting outside shots and him hitting inside shots - it's one of those things where teams realize they can't double us.''
And that, essentially, is the trouble with towering tandems. You can't double-team one without getting hurt by the other.
So how do the most improved players in the Atlantic 10 from a year ago improve this season?
''You try to get tougher, try to get stronger, try to learn more,'' Rhymer said. ''To tell you the truth, I'm still far off. I think I know about 35 percent of the game, and that's about it. I'm still young, you know? I only started learning how to play ball when I was in 10th grade. So I've still got a lot to learn. That's why my ears are wide open.''
Said Brand, ''We just have to keep playing as hard as we did last year. We have been getting good frontcourt play. That's one thing that Coach Lappas stresses: to get things going inside-out. I think it does start on the inside, not to say that we're necessarily leading the team, but it does start from the inside.''
''I'd like to see both of them rebound more and I'd like to see both of them take a step offensively,'' said Lappas. ''They both averaged about 9 points a game last year, and I think they can do more than that. Offensively, I think those kids are, without a doubt, double-figure scorers. I think between them they should be averaging between 24-25 points a game and 15 rebounds. They're not there right now, but they can get there.''