Looking ahead to next year
By Matt Vautour, Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff Writer, 3/10/2006

Even when the University of Massachusetts basketball team was still alive for a National Invitational Tournament berth this season, next year was in the back of the minds of Minutemen fans.

Next year is most sports fans' favorite time - full of promise and devoid of losses. It's the time that all of this year's problems will magically disappear.

But forward-looking Minutemen fans have tangible reason for optimism. UMass is adding three talented transfers and a highly regarded academic nonqualifier to the core of this year's nucleus which is coming back.

Sure this year mattered, but next year is supposed to be the year. Most UMass fans expect a return to the top of the league, the NCAA Tournament and the top 25. Not hope for. Expect.

Is that fair?

Not really for a program that's been out of the NCAA Tournament for eight straight seasons. But since when does fair matter?

So after Wednesday's 75-66 loss to Xavier ended UMass' 13-15 season, next year starts right now.

Can the newcomers deliver on the hype?

Gary Forbes, who began his career at Virginia, gives the Minutemen a much-needed scorer. He's a big wing at 6-foot-5 and reportedly is a more consistent from 3-point range than anybody who wore a UMass uniform this year. A double-double against North Carolina on his resume and good reports from practice make him the most anticipated newcomer.

But he better be good. Really good. Because fans are expecting a Carmelo Anthony-like impact. While that's probably a little far-fetched, he should be an instant impact guy.

Luke Bonner is an intriguing addition. At 7 feet tall, his best attribute is his 3-point shooting. The best-case scenario would be him giving UMass a weapon similar to Bonner's former West Virginia teammate Kevin Pittsnogle. But that's a lot to ask of a guy who averaged one point per game as a Mountaineer.

UMass coach Travis Ford has hyped former Boston University Terrier Etienne Brower as a versatile jack-of-all trades, but he hardly dominated in America East. How will he be stepping up a level?

Tiki Mayben is the wild card. He was rated one of the nation's top point guards as a high school senior, but as an academic nonqualifier, he hasn't played or practiced all season. How he will be after a year off is anybody's guess. If he is good, can he and Chris Lowe play together? It's one of many questions UMass will have to answer.

The biggest difference the quartet can provide will be depth. Unlike this year, Ford will have enough bodies to run and press the way he'd like to. He'll have more ball handlers which is critical to running, and enough wings to play full-court defense for long stretches. It's not inconceivable that UMass could go 10-or-more deep.

Off nights and foul trouble might not be crippling anymore. Might the Minutemen have beaten Saint Louis, Davidson or St. John's with an extra body or two to stop the bleeding?

Fighting for playing time can't hurt either. James Life knew he was going to play this season even if he struggled. But won't he hit the weight room a little harder knowing Forbes is competing for his minutes?

It's not just Life. Lawrence Carrier, Dante Milligan and Brandon Thomas likely all need to get better to guarantee themselves playing time.

There are intangible things to solve too. UMass is going nowhere if it can't figure out how to win consistently outside the Mullins Center. Whether four guys who've played nowhere but Amherst in the past year can fix that remains to be seen.

The honeymoon is officially over for Ford now too. He built a lot of goodwill in his first year in Amherst, but people are expecting wins now.

So is he. He certainly doesn't want to go through another year like this one. He doesn't take losing well. There's a chance he's already breaking down tape.

'It'll be a very obsessed off-season,' he said.

There are 218 days until Midnight Madness.

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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