MHERST - Since he was in the ninth grade, anonymity has been hard to come by for Emmanuel ''Tiki'' Mayben.
That year, one recruiting publication named him the best freshman basketball player in the nation. Since then Mayben's life has been under a microscope, and not just on the court.
His schoolwork, which was a struggle at times, was front page news. His commitment to Syracuse followed by his inability to qualify academically landed him on ESPN.
But this year, he's not basketball star Tiki Mayben who shined in the Jordan Classic. There's no games, no practices and most of the time no spotlight. He's just a UMass student.
''There's a lot of people in my classes that don't know I play basketball,'' he said. ''It's a whole new life. I can start at the beginning, clear my image. I don't got an image here. I'm just me. I'm under the radar just trying to stay in shape and do my schoolwork.
''If I put the work in, they're going to help me. I'm just trying to do what I have to do, going to every lecture and every class,'' Mayben continued. ''Try to be there when teachers have open hours and have them see my face and let them know I'm here to work.''
Mayben was supposed to be the next standout guard for the Orange in the tradition of Sherman Douglas, Pearl Washington, Jason Hart and Gerry McNamara. But when his combination of high school core-course grade point average and standardized test scores fell short of the NCAA's eligibility minimums, Syracuse denied him enrollment.
Mayben said he was leaning toward junior college before UMass coach Travis Ford showed interest.
''I was about to go to community college. Getting accepted here was like the best thing that ever happened to me basically,'' said Mayben, who has to pay his own way as a freshman.
Memphis and Charlotte recruited him too, but Ford had two factors working in his favor, a lack of guards and Rashaun Freeman.
Mayben played with Freeman on the Albany City Rocks AAU team, and like Mayben, Freeman sat out his freshman year as a nonqualifier. The two are roommates.
''I told him it's real hard, but it goes by fast,'' Freeman said. ''I'm definitely going to make sure I show him the ropes and things like that.''
Mayben said, ''He's like my big brother. He's been my big brother since we were back home. I was 14 and he was 16 and we were in AAU. He showed me the ropes then and he's showing me the ropes now.''
Ford said he expected Freeman to be a good role model for Mayben.
''It's very similar situations. Both guys had to sit out,'' Ford said. ''Ray has kind of adopted him a little bit. It's a good situation because Ray is a good person to look up to.''
Mayben will have it a little easier. During Freeman's freshman year, he was often by himself when the rest of the team left on road trips. Mayben will have some company as transfers Luke Bonner, Gary Forbes and Etienne Brower will be left behind as well.
Under new NCAA legislation, players who lost a year of eligibility as freshmen can earn it back if they complete at least 80 percent of their degree requirements after four years.
UMass has a history of success with players who weren't eligible as freshmen. Monty Mack, Kitwana Rhymer and Tyrone Weeks all earned both their degrees and all-conference honors. Freeman is on track to join that list.
Ford said selectivity is critical when recruiting nonqualifiers.
''You want to get to know the young man. What's he want out of it,'' Ford said. ''Tiki seemed like somebody who was very committed to performing off the court. He told me his No. 1 goal at UMass was to prove to people he could do it academically ... Academics is his only focus. His biggest job this year is to get himself acclimated to college academics. UMass has a great formula to keep these kids on track academically and give them the support they need while getting a great education.''
If Mayben does keep his academics in order, Ford could be getting a steal of a player.
''I've seen him in the summertime,'' Ford said. ''He's a very gifted basketball player. He has a great feel for the game. He's an incredible passer. He can really control the basketball and really make things happen for other people on the court.''
Freeman offered similar reviews.
''I don't think UMass has ever seen a guard like him. He's going to be a crowd favorite,'' Freeman said. ''He's a selfless passer. He makes people around him better. He's going to be really good.''
If Freeman is right, the spotlight will find Mayben again soon. He said he'll be better ready to face it.
''I never really was one for all the attention. That's why most of it was negative. I never really knew how to accept it. I never wanted it,'' Mayben said. ''I just wanted to have my game speak for my game.
''All the frustration led to me doing certain things and getting technical fouls. As I got older I learned how to deal with it better,'' he added. ''Now I go to my classes. Go home. Do my work, work out and go to sleep. I'm just trying to remain focused.''
Matt Vautour can be reached at email@example.com.