MHERST - Rashaun Freeman and Stephane Lasme weren't close early in their careers, though they never disliked each other or had any problems.
Stephane Lasme (left) and Rashaun Freeman (right) came from two different worlds as freshmen in 2003-04.
The two big men from vastly different backgrounds had different interests and friends as freshmen.
But the two have been through difficult times together. They've watched teammates and a coaching staff depart, while trying to help bring the program back to elite status in the Atlantic 10. The shared experiences have brought the Minuteman co-captains together this season.
"It's a bond that most people probably don't understand," Freeman said. "We've been through the tough times, the arguments, the terrible games. We are the only two that's been here from the start."
Freeman said it was hard at first to get to know Lasme, a native of Gabon who had been in the United States for less than a year and was still learning English. But he admired his teammate's work ethic and courage to leave home to follow his basketball dream.
"We knew automatically that Steph was brilliant," Freeman said. "It was just a different culture and situation. We knew it would take him some time to develop into who he is right now. I'm proud of him. He never gave up or backtracked or did anything that stopped his progression."
Freeman said Lasme's leadership has been critical to the team.
"When things are going badly he's the type of guy that can really get in people's minds," Freeman said. "He says what needs to be said. That's special because it's totally different than when he was first here and he was just trying to fit in. Now he's a true leader. Not just when things are good, all the time."
Lasme returned the admiration.
"Ray is probably the best big man I've every played against every day. He works so hard," Lasme said. "He deserves the attention he's getting."
Instead of talking just about slowing Freeman, coaches now are concerned about the need to contain the UMass frontcourt.
"We connect so well. We don't have to talk to know if each other is off their game or whether he needs to pick it up or I need to pick it up," Freeman said. "We have each other's back. There's a great bond between me and him."
Both players are having career seasons, feeding off each other's success as the Minutemen are in position to reach the postseason for the first time in their careers.
"We're always better off if we're both in the game," Freeman said. "All of the work and the tough times we went through are paying off now."