rom the day he took over as the head coach of the Massachusetts men's basketball team last March, Travis Ford had been singing the praises of junior Stephane Lasme. Ford immediately recognized that the 6-foot-8 forward was an extremely hard worker who had made great improvements in each of his first two seasons at UMass.
Early this season, Lasme backed up everything Ford had been saying in the preseason and then some. In the first three games of the year, Lasme racked up an eye-popping 20 blocked shots, the highest total in the country at that point.
While Ford had to be pleased with the play early on, he still believed Lasme was capable of more. Following the hot start, Lasme turned in three lackluster performances, averaging just 5.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks, and the Minutemen were an unimpressive 3-3.
Sensing that Lasme had not been playing as hard as he was capable of, Ford decided to challenge him in front of the entire team. In a team meeting the night before UMass was to take on St. Peter's in the first round of the Panasonic Holiday Tournament at Madison Square Garden, Ford took Lasme to task for what he considered unacceptable performances from a player of Lasme's ability.
Clearly, the message got through, as Lasme went out the following night and displayed just how dominant he could be. Displaying an aggressiveness that had been lacking at the offensive end, Lasme attempted a career-high 14 shots, converting eight.
Lasme scored the first eight points of the game for UMass en route to career-highs in points (21) and rebounds (14), while adding eight blocks, a total one fewer than his career-best he recorded earlier this year at Davidson.
Following the 66-49 UMass win, Ford praised Lasme for responding to the challenge posed by the coaching staff and reinforced his belief that Lasme had the potential to be an outstanding all-around player.
"Since the day I've met him, he's always underestimated how good he was," Ford says. "We've talked to him about not just being a role player, but being a dominant player. From Day 1, he's someone I've really believed in."
Ford went on to predict that Lasme could someday find himself playing in the NBA if he continued to improve.
"He's just scratched the surface," Ford says. "I think he's one of the best big men in the county. He could be a dominant player at maybe the next level."
Talk of a potential NBA career did not seem likely to be centered on Lasme when he arrived in Amherst three years ago from Gabon, Africa. The rail-thin 20-year-old was recruited by former UMass coach Steve Lappas after a successful stint with the Gabon National Team from 2000-2003.
Lasme not only had to adjust to playing basketball at a higher level, he was also faced with the more daunting task of adjusting to life in a new country.
"It was hard in the beginning to get adjusted to the country, but once I got used to it, things got easier along the way," Lasme says.
Senior Jeff Viggiano has seen Lasme become more comfortable during his time at UMass, but realizes that many things are still new to Lasme.
"We're really close off the court," Viggiano says. "He's still learning new things about our culture everyday. It's funny; he still finds the young, really childish jokes really funny. He's a really funny guy."
Lasme's transition to playing Division I basketball has been easier than adjusting to the new way of life, but there have been a few bumps in the road. For instance, in Lasme's first game at UMass, the eager freshman was summoned by Lappas to enter the game, and he immediately ran onto the court rather than checking in at the scorer's table and waiting for a break in play.
"Back home, we didn't have to go check in at the table," Lasme says. "We just went in when the coach said to go in."
That mishap aside, Lasme showed flashes during his freshman season, and UMass appeared to have had uncovered a diamond in the rough. Lasme received the team's Jack Leaman Defensive Award after averaging 1.8 blocks per game, the second-highest total in the Atlantic 10.
During his sophomore campaign last season, Lasme took his game to another level, blocking 72 shots, the sixth-best single-season total in UMass history.
With his defensive abilities already comparable to the best of anyone in the country, Lasme knew he needed to improve his all-around game. Lasme spend the summer working out, exhibiting the work ethic that teammates and coaches have come to expect.
While he is still listed at 190 pounds as he was last year, Lasme clearly seems bigger than that as he has added considerable bulk to his upper body. In addition to his time in the weight room, he put in long hours working on his offensive game.
"Coach Ford said during the summer that it would relieve a lot of the pressure if I was scoring more," Lasme says. "I work hard in my time off. I spend a lot of time working on the things the coaches ask me to."
"His work ethic is unreal," Viggiano says. "He was up here all summer - always in the gym, always working out. I think he realizes his potential, and he's in the gym every day trying to get better."
The hard work in the off-season has clearly paid off, as Lasme is averaging career highs in points (9.6 per game), rebounds (6.5) and field goal percentage (60 percent).
Even with all of the improvements to his offensive game, it is still what Lasme does on the defensive end that causes people to sit up and take notice.
This season Lasme has become that rare player who is capable of completely dominating a game with his defense. Through Jan. 27, Lasme had registered 75 blocks, the fourth-highest single-season total in school history.
With 11 games to play, Lasme is looking up on the single-season list at only Marcus Camby, who recorded the three highest single-season totals in UMass history. If Lasme continues at his current pace he has a chance at topping Camby's school record of 128 blocks during the 1995-96 campaign. By the end of this season, Lasme will most likely hold the No. 2 spot in career blocks behind Camby.
Lasme, who was third in the nation in blocked shots at the start of last week, takes such accomplishments in stride.
"I just try to help everyone out," Lasme says humbly. "I know it's hard to play defense for 40 minutes, especially on the perimeter."
Viggiano, being one of those teammates Lasme looks to help out, is very appreciative of having his friend behind him to protect the basket.
"He's saved me personally so many times, and he's saved so many baskets for our team," Viggiano says. "Sometimes it's more of a disadvantage because being on the perimeter you might relax a little bit knowing you have one of the leading shot blockers in the country back there."
Ford is well aware of how valuable Lasme is to the team's defense, which has held opponents to under 40 percent shooting in each of the last five games.
"He is our defense," Ford says. "We're known as a pretty good defensive team, but if you watch us on tape, it's him blocking everybody's shot. We actually probably have four bad defenders and one good one, but he makes everybody look good."
There are times when all opposing coaches and players can do is shrug their shoulders and shake their heads as Lasme seemingly comes from nowhere and repeatedly rejects what were thought to be uncontested layups.
As University of Alabama at Birmingham coach Mike Anderson said following Lasme's seven-block performance in an 86-77 UAB win in the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield earlier this year, "Every time we went inside, it was like a turnover."
While Lasme has put up gaudy statistics this season, recording blocked shots is not an exact science, as it is subject to the scorer's judgment. In every game it seems that Lasme gets a piece of at least one or two shots that are not credited as blocks. That's why his value on defense cannot be measured in the box score alone, as that doesn't account for the number of shots he causes to be adjusted and altered.
After seeing Lasme swat away layup attempts early in games, opponents clearly think twice about attempting shots with him lurking in the lane. For every shot Lasme gets a hand on, there is another one that he causes to be released awkwardly as opponents try to evade his extensive reach.
And unlike many prolific shot blockers who sag off of their man and get all of their blocks in help defense, Lasme is equally adept at blocking shots on the ball as he is at coming from the weak side to bail out a teammate.
"It's just a knack he has," Ford says of Lasme's shot-blocking acumen. "It's nothing that you can teach. He has an incredible ability and great timing and instincts. It changes the game."
As Ford looks to a bright future, he knows that Lasme (who was named a captain on Jan. 16 along with Viggiano and junior Rashaun Freeman) will play a major role in leading UMass to success.
"I said this basically after a week of working with him: I saw something special in him, and he hasn't changed my mind one single bit," Ford says. "The sky's the limit for him. If he continues the route he's going, and continues to be humble and work hard everyday, he's going to have a lot of success in basketball and help UMass have a lot of success."
And with that, Ford hesitated for a moment - as if not to heap too much praise on a junior who still has a lot to prove - but then continued to reveal again just how much potential he believes Lasme has.
"He'll make a lot of money someday playing this game at the next level."