arch 25 is the date that it all began. Stated over and over again through the national grapevine of college basketball was the slogan: it is a new era for Massachusetts men's basketball. The buildup, which began with a simple introduction, exploded into a frenzy of press coverage, national attention and face time. A montage of signings just added to the new-fangled team that was UMass.
The bombardment of coverage, which began on March 25, was a result of the name that has had fans buzzing - Travis Ford.
When Ford was announced as the new coach of the Minuteman basketball team, the attitude revolving around the program took a different turn, and it was looked at as the beginning of a new age in Amherst.
While the face of the team went through a complete revamping, the core of the players from the 2004-05 season are still left now that the dust has settled. Spearheading the team is Rashaun Freeman, the team's leading scorer and an All-American candidate.
"I think we've made a lot of strides to make our basketball program better," Ford said. "Some of those strides have been that our players stayed here all summer long and worked out, and went to both summer sessions of school and got ahead academically. They also got ahead in their conditioning and in getting stronger."
As memories of their 61-59 upset over Connecticut on Dec. 9, 2004, are put in the books, the beginning of the Travis Ford era officially will tip-off tonight. And with the beginning of the 2005-06 season for the Maroon and White, the hype has truly reached its pinnacle moment.
The story here has been the decision of which player will be the man at point guard. Junior Maurice Maxwell appears to be the frontrunner, as he has proved his worth over the past two seasons with the Minutemen. Increasing his average of 8.1 points per game during his freshman season to 11.4 points per game during his sophomore year, Maxwell has raised his game up since his rookie season. Along with the points, Maxwell led the team in steals, with 51.
Newcomer James Life was the second recruit inked by Ford during the off-season, and was made a Minuteman because of his work ethic and his ability to shoot the ball. A transfer from Manatee Community College, Life has had a good showing in the early going, putting up 17 points in the Minutemen's 96-55 trouncing of Division II Dowling in an exhibition game on Nov. 10.
Junior Art Bowers looks to break out in his junior year and adds to the deadly shooting attack that Life provides.
Transfer Brandon Thomas brings versatility to the backcourt. With his 6-foot-6 frame, he has the athletic ability to cover multiple positions, including guard or forward. The swingman sat out last season while attending San Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla., but averaged 12.3 points per game during his sophomore year at Long Island University in 2003-04.
Chris Lowe, out of Mount Vernon High School in Mount Vernon, N.Y., is the only true freshman on the team, as well as the only true point guard.
"I think Chris as a freshman is coming along really well," senior Jeff Viggiano said.
Lowe came in as the very first recruit signed by Ford, and although he is young, he will see plenty of playing time this season and is expected to pick up a plethora of experience from the veterans on the team.
Reserves Drew Rossi and Nana Ampim add to the depth and will contribute off the bench.
There is absolutely no doubt that the focus is on the play of Freeman, who feels the newcomers can open up the frontcourt play for the other talent.
"The offense pretty much ran a four-out, one-in last year, and it was to give me the ball and be the scorer," Freeman said. "I think we have a lot more options than we had last year, and that's obviously going to help us."
Freeman will look to build upon his team-leading average of 15.4 points per game and 7.8 rebounds per game, as well as provide a tool for other players to be fed the ball. With one of the top threats in the Atlantic 10 at the forefront of the frontcourt, veterans such as senior Jeff Viggiano and junior Stephane Lasme make for a dangerous combination up front.
Lasme gives the Minutemen size up front and specializes in blocking shots, as he recorded a team-high 72 last season. Lasme gives the frontcourt range in the paint and an effective rebounding ability.
"So far I've been happy with the performances of everybody," Ford said. "We're going to have a very small room for error. We can't have injuries and we need to have everyone ready to go."
Viggiano is the only senior on the Maroon and White this season, making him the leader of not only the frontcourt, but also the entire team. Viggiano recovered from a sprained ankle last season and put up respectable numbers, finishing the season with an average of 4.5 points per game.
"Personally I feel really good, I feel really healthy. As a team I think we're ready to go," Viggiano said. "Everybody's ready to get the season rolling."
With the talent level on the team high, Viggiano feels the team can benefit from their ability to work the bench.
"We have a bunch of different guys that can play a bunch of different positions and that just helps out," Viggiano said. "We'll have a deep bench; we won't be playing only six guys in a game, so we'll be able to keep guys fresh throughout the course of the season."
Pittsburgh transfer Dante Milligan will be eligible to compete following the fall semester and gives the Minutemen strength at the post.
With Ford actively recruiting since arriving in Amherst, transfers Etienne Brower from Boston University, Gary Forbes from Virginia and Luke Bonner from West Virginia will all be assets for next season. Matt Pennie, who walked onto the team this season, will give the frontcourt some depth.