MHERST - From the moment Travis Ford galvanized a Curry Hicks Cage crowd at his introductory press conference in March, University of Massachusetts men's basketball fans have been dreaming about Friday night.
With every handshake at the countless public gatherings he's attended, Ford has inspired fans to believe in the program's future even though most had never seen him coach a game.
Against Hartford at 7 p.m. Friday, Ford will try to begin delivering on the high hopes he's raised.
He'll start by delivering on a promise broken by his two most recent predecessors. Ford's teams are going to run.
For the past several years, UMass coaches talked about playing up-tempo. Every October, the new season was going to be the one when the Minutemen actually played some transition basketball.
But once the ball went up in November, the pace usually slowed down and UMass went back to winning and losing games based on whether or not it could approach 70 points.
Ford is a gas-pedal-down coach, modeling his system after the one Rick Pitino ran when Ford played for him at Kentucky. Ford's teams at Eastern Kentucky and Campbellsville University all ran.
'We are playing fast. We are pressing for 40 minutes and this is totally new to our guys,' Ford said. 'If the other team scores, we like to get the ball out of bounds and up the floor in four seconds.'
Junior guard Maurice Maxwell said the players are enjoying the switch.
'The whole way we approach the game and the way we play is different,' he said. 'We were more of a slow-it-down, get-the-ball-inside team. Now we try to get a quick layup, then try to get the ball inside and go from there.'
To get them ready to play in his system, Ford put his charges through rigorous conditioning and running during the offseason and carried the intensity into practice.
'We've never been pushed as hard as we're being pushed right now. Not in our worst dreams,' said junior big man Rashaun Freeman. 'We're definitely going to be better for it. We're trying to work as hard as we can so we can reap the benefits of it. All that conditioning made us come together more. I think that's definitely going to show.'
Ford is surprised how well a team that was recruited to play in former coach Steve Lappas' motion offense has fit into his system.
'These guys fit my system better than I thought. I haven't had a team that's going to press as much as this team in awhile, and I love pressing,' Ford said. 'It takes effort to press. It takes bodies and effort.'
Ford said his starting lineup will revolve through the season.
Freeman, who was on the Atlantic 10 all-conference first team last year, is expected to be a mainstay inside. Fellow returning starter Stephane Lasme will be alongside him when Ford wants to play a big lineup.
Senior Jeff Viggiano and sophomore Lawrence Carrier can each play inside or on the wing. Pittsburgh transfer Dante Milligan will play the four-spot as well when he becomes eligible on Dec. 23.
Maxwell begins the season as the team's No. 1 point guard. Should freshman Chris Lowe earn more minutes, Maxwell could slide back to the wing where he played in his first two seasons.
Ford will have the luxury of several choices for two spots in the wing. In addition to Viggiano, Carrier and potentially Maxwell, veteran Artie Bowers and newcomers Brandon Thomas and James Life will all see regular time in the rotation.
'It's important that everyone plays well,' Ford said. 'We have very small room for error. We're not a great basketball team. We have potential to be very, very good at times, and we have potential if some guys don't show up, to be very bad.
'There's not ever going to be an easy night for this basketball team,' Ford added. 'To play at the level we want to play at, we really have to outwork teams. We are not a team that's going to win on talent.'
Ford said the staff has tried to instruct the players not just how to win, but how to be winners.
'We've tried to teach them what it means to win,' he said. 'What do you have to do off the court to win? Eat the right foods. Rest. Get to know each other as a team. We spend a lot of time on that because it was kind of foreign to them.
'The sign of greatness is taking care of business every single night,' Ford said. 'It doesn't mean you're going to win every game, but you're going to have the same effort every single night.'
He hopes that starts Friday night.
'We need a little more time. But we're ready,' Ford said. 'It's an exciting time of year.'
Matt Vautour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more UMass coverage including a frequently updated UMass sports blog, go to www.dailyhampshiregazette.com/umsports.