Publish date:

9. Massachusetts They're strong and deep, but if the Minutemen can't learn to hit the three-pointer, their Final Four hopes are a long shot

Nearly every day since he became coach at UMass in June 1996,
Bruiser Flint has talked on the phone to his predecessor, John
Calipari. They've chatted about players, about strategy, about
personal matters. But none of the discussions the two have had
were as gratifying to Flint as the one that took place last
month, a few days after fall practice began. "John told me that
we have more weapons this year than we've had in the past and
that our margin for error has increased," recalls Flint. "That's
when it really started to dawn on me that we could have a very
good team."

That sort of talk makes it easy to forget that just 22 months
ago Flint was a first-year coach presiding over a 6-9 team and
looking very much like a man headed for the gallows. But after
molding two collections of young, raw players into NCAA
tournament entries, the 33-year-old Flint is on the short list
of the brightest young coaches in the country. Now, with eight
players who averaged at least 13 minutes returning from a 21-11
squad, he has a deep and mature crop to work with. For the first
time since Calipari left to coach the New Jersey Nets, the
Minutemen have serious designs on the Final Four. "We've grown
up," says senior center Lari Ketner, a potential NBA lottery
pick. "We have the talent to go as far as anybody."

One of four returning starters, Ketner didn't begin playing
organized basketball until he was a sophomore at Roman Catholic
High in Philadelphia, and he's still a work in progress. Last
season he averaged 15.2 points and 7.4 boards, but against
collapsing zone defenses he seemed to disappear--no easy trick
for a 6'10" 268-pounder. Occasionally, though, Ketner
outhustled, outmuscled and outplayed some of the top big men in
the country. To wit: He held Kansas's Raef LaFrentz to 6 for 16
shooting while scoring 14 points; he limited Purdue's Brad
Miller to 3 of 10 shooting while racking up 14 points; and he
held George Washington's Alexander Koul to six points while
scoring 21 in a game last January. "For us to be the team we
need to be," says Ketner, "I need to keep the light on all the
time instead of turning it off and on."

To open up space inside for Ketner and forwards Ajmal Basit and
Kitwana Rhymer, UMass needs guards Charlton Clarke, Monty Mack
and Jonathan DePina to improve their long-range marksmanship,
which will force teams to extend their zones. In 1997-98 the
Minutemen shot 33.9% from beyond the arc, good for 170th out of
the 306 Division I schools. Ultimately, how far into March this
team goes will be determined by how frequently Clarke and Co.
knock down the 20-footer.

"If we hit from the outside, we'll be tough," says Flint, echoing
what his consigliere, Calipari, told the players at UMass's first
practice of the fall. "That's the only way we'll take it to the
next level."




SF [*]Mike Babul 6'6" Jr. 4.1 ppg
PF Ajmal Basit 6'9" Jr. 50.3 FG%
C [*]Lari Ketner 6'10" Sr. 15.2 ppg
SG [*]Monty Mack 6'3" Jr. 13.8 ppg
PG [*]Charlton Clarke 6'3" Sr. 12.6 ppg

'97-98 record: 21-11 Final rank (coaches' poll): unranked
[*]Returning starter