MHERST - When Jameel Pugh walked off the court after winning the Slam Dunk Contest at Midnight Madness 2000, every fan in the Mullins Center was excited.
Even though tales of Pugh's leaping ability had long-preceded his arrival, his performance had met the crowd's high expectations. The onlookers left the building that night dreaming that he'd be dunking on players wearing Connecticut and Temple jerseys over the next five months.
It didn't happen that way. Pugh didn't get off the bench for the first seven games. He did dunk against UConn, but it came long after the outcome had been determined. He made some key contributions in the 17 games he did play, including a key steal in an upset win over Temple and a big 3-pointer in UMass' comeback victory against George Washington.
But the most memorable moment of his freshman year still came in a practice jersey during the dunk contest.
Over the course of the season, Pugh often fell out of favor with coach Bruiser Flint, who criticized his defense and at times his focus in practice.
In spite of his lack of playing time, Pugh expressed no bitterness and criticized UMass' decision to fire Flint.
Despite those sentiments, Pugh is thankful for a fresh start under new coach Steve Lappas.
"It's like being given a second chance and I'm more prepared for the chance this year," Pugh said. "It's like a situation where your preparation meets your opportunity. Now with that opportunity, we're going to see how I prepared myself."
Having seen a preview of how Lappas' motion offense will run during the team's 10-day, four-game trip to Greece in August, Pugh expects it will suit his abilities.
"I think this style of offense caters to guys that are a little more athletic and can get to the basket," Pugh said. "For me that's great. Last year the set-up offense wasn't really displaying all the things I can do on the floor. I'll have more of an opportunity to let my instincts take over rather than being dictated to."
In hopes of improving himself and impressing the new coaches, Pugh made a 10-day trip to Baltimore this summer where he worked with a personal trainer.
"I spent 10 days doing a lot of conditioning, running and weight training which helped me a lot," said Pugh, who is noticeably more muscular.
Listed at 6-foot-5, the Sacramento native will play on the wing, as the roles of shooting guard and small forward are very similar in Lappas' offense. He'll have plenty of competition for playing time at the two spots.
In addition to senior captain Shannon Crooks, who will play a lot, sophomores Raheim Lamb and Willie Jenkins, senior Ronell Blizzard and either Anthony Anderson or Kyle Wilson (whoever isn't playing point guard) could also see time at those spots.
"He's in a spot where we have a lot of guys to pick from," Lappas said. "Somebody has to emerge. Right now I would put him towards the front. I don't think we have a front-runner at that spot, but he's towards the front and hopefully he'll be able to do it."
Pugh helped his cause in Greece.
"To be truthful he didn't have a good week of practice the week before that which is bizarre. But in three of the four games he played well," Lappas said.
Pugh admitted he's not as comfortable playing in practice.
"In practice you tend to think more. You tend to concentrate on what can I do to impress the coaching staff," he explained. "Where in a game, you can just go out and do what we've been preparing for. When I go out there and work off of instincts, that's when I'm most effective."
Pugh dunked again at Friday night's Midnight Madness, but he hopes this year that the event begins his season instead of defining it.
"This year I feel more in control of my situation," he said. "Last year, after a while it felt like it didn't matter what I did. I have a fresh chance. All you can ask for is an opportunity. If I don't make the most of that, it's my fault."