Ford looks to increase offense
By Matt Vautour, Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff Writer, 3/25/2006

AMHERST - University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach Travis Ford wasn't feeling reflective minutes after Xavier ended his team's season in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament March 8.

After discussing what went wrong that evening, Ford made a promise.

'It's going to be an obsessive off-season,' he said, without the hint of a smile after the Minutemen finished his first season as coach at 13-15.

Saturday marks the end of one full year of the Travis Ford era, a stretch of 365 obsessive days for a coach trying to remake the Minuteman program.

He was a little more reflective a week later, but no less intense in his convictions for year two of his tenure. Ford promised his team as such.

'If you're not going to be totally obsessed this off-season to get ready to compete, you might have played your last basketball game here,' Ford told them.

Stylistically, Ford doesn't expect the 2006-07 edition of his Minutemen to look much like the 2005-06 team. After spending much of the preseason planning to play the running and pressing style that his teams had employed at Eastern Kentucky, Ford was forced to limit its use at UMass early in the season.

Two returning starters who were expected to log considerable minutes were gone before conference play began in early January. Dissatisfied with his playing time, Artie Bowers elected to transfer after two games. Academic problems rendered Maurice Maxwell ineligible academically and the Minutemen thin on the perimeter.

UMass ran some and pressed occasionally, but Ford scaled back the approach, a move he regretted somewhat.

'I probably would have stuck with my system a little bit more,' he said. 'But we only had eight guys. It would have been so hard to do it. But we did enough of it, especially preseason so we won't be starting from scratch ... It was an interesting year. I don't know if I've ever experienced a year like this year as far as the roster changes we had, losing two key players.'

Lack of depth was just one thing that plagued his team. The Minutemen struggled on the road (3-13 away from the Mullins Center) and lost several games in the final minutes.

'To lose six games on last possessions was tough,' he said. 'We were good at home. Why were we bad on the road? I still don't know.'

Ford said scoring more consistently could help solve quite a few problems. The Minutemen will welcome four new players who sat out this season and they are expected to help score more.

'Offense cures a lot of woes. Everybody believes defense wins and I don't disagree, but offense keeps you in games,' Ford said. 'We'll be able to play our style of basketball more. I'd love to be able to play nine or 10 guys.

'We'll definitely play faster offensively,' Ford added. 'I can't wait to play the way we want to play. I think we'll shoot the ball better. We want to score in the 80s. Hopefully we can press more. I think we'll be able to do that.'

'Momentum building'

Ford's boss has been impressed with him so far.

'I'm very pleased where we are. Transitions are always difficult,' said athletic director John McCutcheon. 'There is an overall sense of momentum building. These things are rarely just flick a switch and you're off to the races. It's a building process. I really feel good about how we are going in that direction.'

Ford agreed, but warned against raising expectations too high for his second season.

'Just because we added players that we all think are going to be good, does that mean something is automatic? Nothing is automatic,' he said. 'We are going to be better. I think people are going to enjoy watching this team play. Hopefully everybody stays healthy and we'll be very competitive and we have a chance to be very, very good.

'But when you start putting expectations on a team you're putting undue pressure on them,' Ford said. 'We want to play, work hard and have fun.'

Those expectations have stemmed from Ford's own enthusiasm. The start of the 36-year-old's tenure borrowed a page from 'Campaigning for Dummies.'

While he didn't kiss babies, Ford spent most of last summer shaking hands and crisscrossing the Commonwealth meeting fans, sharing his ideas for making the program an NCAA Tournament contender again and listening to suggestions, both useful and ridiculous.

The strategy seemed to pay off. Fans, boosters and alumni who had let their season tickets run out began returning to the Mullins Center.

Ticket sales increased and the Minutemen's average home attendance jumped from 3,869 last season to 4,904, the highest since 2001-02. The crowds came despite the team's sub-.500 record and no marquee home game on the schedule. Optimism for the future created curiosity about the present.

Donations for the athletic department as a whole increased too. With more than three months remaining in this fiscal year, UMass doesn't have exact numbers, but Tim Kenney, the associate athletic director for advancement, said the program has already passed the $1.3 million it raised in 2004-05.

'We've passed it and we haven't done our annual fund appeal (which starts next week) yet,' said Kenney, who said the improved perception of the program has made potential donors more receptive. 'People are more excited about the program and direction of it. They want to talk about getting involved.'

Ford promised to remain accessible this off-season, but won't be on the campaign trail quite as often as a year ago.

'What we did had to be done, but I won't be out every single day, which I almost was. I still look forward to getting out and telling the fans what to expect about our team,' he said. 'I spent less time on basketball than I ever have. I look forward to spending August and September totally immersed in our team.'

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. For more UMass coverage including a frequently updated UMass sports blog, go to www.dailyhampshiregazette.com/umsports.


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