EW YORK - The UMass basketball takes part in the Panasonic Holiday Festival for the first time in school history, at Madison Square Garden. The Minutemen will take on St. Peter's the first game of the tournament tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. The team arrived in the Big Apple on Sunday night after a Christmas Day practice at the Mullins Center. After a good night sleep at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in the heart of Times Square, the Minutemen headed the Garden for a morning practice. It was the first time many Minutemen have ever been to "The World's Most Famous Arena," including senior Jeff Viggiano and sophomore Lawrence Carrier. For others such as native New Yorkers freshman Chris Lowe and sophomore Dante Milligan, it was a return to MSG where they will each make their collegiate debuts on the court made famous by the likes of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Patrick Ewing. After a hard practice the team was given some free time in NYC to take in a New York lunch in addition to the sights and sounds of the biggest city in America. The team continues its activities in the evening with a visit back to the Garden to watch the Knicks-Nets game.
Here are some "postcards" from the Minutemen on their stay in New York.
Senior Jeff Viggiano
"It's very exciting to be here. I have never been here personally. Everyone has seen it on TV. So many great players have played for the Knicks and great players like Michael Jordan have played here. It's exciting to be here. This is a part of history and this is one of the great things about playing college basketball.
"As far as where Madison Square Garden ranks on my all-time list, other than the tacky color of the seats, it is one of the best and I am really looking forward to the games the next few days."
Freshman Chris Lowe
"My memories of the Garden .... Whooooo ... It was a beautiful experience when I think back of my first time playing in the Garden (two years ago with Mount Vernon High School). Being on the floor that so many great players and being in the same arena that so many great players, it is just an honor to be here. It was just so happy as well as being shocked the first time I played in the Garden. This time it will be a lot easier for me to play in the Garden. I will just relax and let my game flow.
"I have been to the Garden many times. I came to watch Michael Jordan. I came to watch Ben Gordon and the Chicago Bulls play here last year, because Gordon went to my high school. I come to a lot of Knicks games. I have lots of nice memories about playing in the Garden and they are memories that I will have for the rest of my life.
"I have played here twice, and have different memories. The first game, when we played here my junior year (2003), I have great memories because we won. Last year, the memories are not as good because we lost a tough game to Rice (High School)."
Sophomore Dante Milligan
"As everyone knows, Madison Square Garden is "The World's Most Famous Arena." There is so much history here and so many great players have played here well before our time. It is just a great opportunity to finally be able to play here and get out on the court and be able to perform before all the fans we are going to have at the game. It is a monumental event for us, it is a good tournament with good teams. When I was Pitt, I was at the Garden many times but never got a chance to get in a game, because I redshirted and then the coach chose not to play me in the game last year. That's what makes this extra special to me personally.
"Growing up here I always watched Knicks games, so it is very special to be here. When I was younger the Knicks were a pretty good team. There was a lot of attention and it was special to watch them. My favorite memory is of "The Dunk" when John Starks jumped over Michael Jordan and Horace Grant and dunked on them in the early 90s."
Sophomore Lawrence Carrier
"It's my first time here so I am very excited. It's my first time playing on this court, I just can't wait to get to get to game-time to play. When I think back of special games at Madison Square Garden, I think of Michael Jordan dunking on Patrick Ewing, that was one of the most exciting games I have ever seen. Hopefully, god-willing I can do something like that No. 23."
EW YORK - Some opposing coaches will watch film of Keydren Clark and feel like they are viewing a horror movie. The nightmare being how to stop or try to curtail the explosive scoring of the St. Peter's senior. UMass head coach Travis Ford took a different approach. He simply sat back and admired.
"He (Clark) is a pleasure to watch," Ford said after a 66-49 UMass victory over St. Peter's in the Panosonic Holiday Festival semifinal. "He just looks so smooth out there. He makes it look so easy and even though he puts up those numbers, he doesn't force a shot and is very unselfish. He is just a great asset to college basketball."
Admiration aside, the UMass mentor had a task of slowing Clark down and making sure he didn't have one of those explosive nights. On his behalf, Ford is not of the opinion that you concede the scoring threat his points while stopping the others from hurting you. Ford believes you go right at a team's strength. "We wanted to trap him off screens and keep him away from the basket, " Ford said. "Some of the shots he made tonight were thirty-footers."
UMASS did the job on the defensive end. Ford's game plan was executed admirably. Clark scored a game-high 22 points. He shot 8-of-23 from the floor, which included 4-of-11 beyond the arc. "Whenever I got past a (UMass) guard," Clark said, "There was a 6-10 defender just waiting." Most of the time that 6-10 player was Stephane Lasne, effectively clogging the lane and blocking eight shots.
Ford admired Clark's ability and St. Peter's determination. But there were numerous observers who, in turn, had to recognize the job the UMass mentor did the festival. Case in point: UMass is down 27-14 at the break in the finals against St. John's (who rolled over Columbia in the other semi). Ford's demeanor never changed. He's intense on the sideline but in a teaching sense. Rarely 'working' the officials, Ford is concerned with his team and improving day to day.
St. John's probably played their best defensive half of the season in the first twenty minutes of the final. The Minutemen were an icy 19 percent (5-27) from the field. The inside game was shut down, guards were neutralized, and 6-6 forward Jeff Viggiano, an effective scoring threat against St. Peter's, struggled to get a shot off.
Ford never ranted, raved nor panicked. All it took was a few adjustments in the offensive sets and spacing. The results were immediate: UMass scored 12 points during the first six possessions of the second half. The 12-4 run put the Minutemen back in the contest.
The game, threatening to be a one-way laugher at the half, proved to be an entertaining and competitive affair. Fittingly, it wasn't settled until the final possession. UMass, trailing by a point, was unsuccessful on a guard penetration and the buzzer sounded as both teams fought for the rebound. The record books will show it to be a 51-49 St. John's win. St. John's improved to 7-4 while UMass dropped to 5-4. The Minutemen have a game at Boston College just after the new year. Following that meeting, it's all Atlantic 10 Conference action for the Minutemen. (UMassHoops.com note: The Minutemen have one remaining non-conference game after BC, visiting Florida State on February 12.)
Ford will be going through his first trip through the conference. That can be tough for someone not familiar with the league. He does, however, have some knowledge of the league.
"I followed Xavier and Dayton pretty close the last few seasons," Ford said alluding to his days as Eastern Kentucky head coach. "I know it is a very good league. Last year was a down year in the conference, but this year it will be strong. This is a four (NCAA) bid conference," he added. "I guarantee we will have at least four schools in the (NCAA) tournament."
The addition of St. Louis and Charlotte enhance the league, but the traditional names and faces will be present. "Temple and St. Joe's are consistently strong teams in the conference," Ford added, "they'll be good again this season."
UMass, in all likelihood, will not challenge for the A-10 crown. But they will be competitive on a nightly basis. Beside Lasme, they have a solid inside presence in 6-9 Rashaun Freeman. The junior backcourt of Brandon Thomas and Maurice Maxwell is good. The aforementioned Viggiano is a hustling type that can get you a rebound, give an assist, hit a three or dive for a loose ball. "He (Viggiano) doesn't do anything great," Ford says, "but he does many things well."
The same may be said for the Minutemen. Not great, but they can be effective in different areas. Under Ford's guidance, they'll be a fun team to watch and should get fans back to the Mullins Center.