MHERST - The University of Massachusetts coaching staff doesn't always see Micah Brand as he is. They see the 6-foot-11 center through an imaginary circus mirror. They look at the athletic, yet rail-thin big man and envision the future. They picture him with a year more of experience, another 365 days in the weight room and a few more milkshakes, pizzas and ice cream sundaes under his belt.
If that circus mirror is a window on Brand's future, there is a lot to look forward to. Big and athletic is a valuable combination, a mixture of attributes that can translate into collegiate stardom and potential professional riches. With Brand, you can throw in smart, too. Brand was the valedictorian of his class at Milford Academy.
So if he adds "strong" to his resume...
"He could be a special player," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "We have to work on his eating habits. He's one of those big guys that doesn't eat. He picks at his food. He's a salad guy. We have to get some weight on him.
"Lari (Ketner) ate like a horse," Flint said of last year's center. "He'd get two entrees when we went out. If (Brand) gets strong, it's scary what he can do."
Brand recognizes the need for strength and is already planning to spend many hours in the weight room after the season.
"With strength comes confidence. When you get down to it, they're not going to push you around for a rebound," Brand said. "The way I play now, I know I can do a lot of things, but if I'm stronger, I can do them better. After the season and over the summer, I'm going to concentrate on getting stronger and try to come back next year to be better."
The UMass fans have big dreams for Brand, too. If they squint a little while they watch him sprinting down the floor, they see a young Marcus Camby, a reminder of recent glory days.
"Obviously the comparisons are going to be there. Same frame, same build, pretty similar game, I guess," Brand said. "I don't hear it as much now as I did during the preseason. I was honored to be compared to that caliber of player. I'm not going to try to rush anything."
Flint said the comparisons have merit.
"He can do the things (offensively) that Marcus could do," Flint said. "He can shoot the 15-footer. He's not as athletic and he doesn't play the same defensively. Marcus made a big difference on the (defensive) end of the floor."
Brand sees himself as he is, a raw but talented, rapidly improving player with big dreams for his college career and beyond.
"Every year I've played I've gotten better in at least one aspect of my game," Brand said. "Partly because I switched levels of competition going from Middletown to Milford and Milford to here. It's made me work harder.
"I want to get better. I'm not going to be satisfied with pretty good. I want to get better so by the time I'm a senior, I'll be a lot stronger. The skills I have now will be a lot more refined.
"I've been dreaming about playing Division I basketball my whole life and now the next step is right there and I just need to work hard to get there the way I worked hard to get here and everything should work out fine," Brand said.
Despite his size and athletic ability, Brand wasn't heavily recruited coming out of Milford. College coaches weren't excited about his work ethic and thought Brand might be too soft to play at the college level. While Flint recognized the New York City native's talents, he saw Brand as more of a project than a regular contributor.
"He wasn't the hardest-playing cat and I think that was one of the reasons a lot of people didn't recruit him. They thought he was maybe a little soft," Flint said. "One of the things I liked about him was I thought he had an unbelievable collection of skills. He can pass and he can put it on the floor a little bit. He's getting a lot better. He's freshman, though. I've always said he was much better than I thought he was going to be, especially to this point."
In his first game in a Minuteman uniform, Brand was considerably better than Flint expected. He dropped in 16 points, including 10-for-10 from the free-throw line, while grabbing eight rebounds. But that early success might have hindered his development.
"After the first exhibition game I did pretty well and I admit I got a little bit of a big head," Brand said sheepishly. "I was up and down in practice, mostly down, getting yelled at all the time."
His game performances were inconsistent as well as he mixed flashes of brilliant, aggressive play with getting pushed around by bigger opponents. In addition to lack of strength, there was a perceived lack of focus.
"He can get silly sometimes because he's a freshman," Flint said. "He's one to giggle, poke people and do all those things. A couple of guys on the team told him, you could be a Marcus Camby if you get a little bit serious. That shows you what guys on the team think of him as a player."
That criticism came during a recent team meeting and Brand took it to heart.
"There's a very big difference between the way you have to get focused for a high school game than for a college game. If you're loose coming into a college game, you're going to get blown out," Brand said. "The way I was in practice, I tend to joke around, because that's the kind of guy I am off the court. I had to realize that in practice you have to ... focus and listen to what you have to do. In the games it's the same way. Once you get off the court, you can joke."
Flint has noticed the improvement in Brand's approach, especially on the glass.
"He's doing a much better job rebounding. That's something I was getting on him about," Flint said. "But I think even the guys have confidence in him. They pass it in to the post because they know he can score."
Brand will put his new-found focus on display again Sunday, when the Minutemen travel to Philadelphia's City Line section to take on St. Joseph's.