his is Travis Ford's second year at the helm of Massachusetts basketball. His team went 13-15 last season and suffered a first-round defeat to Xavier in the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
Ford's team hit some early speed bumps in the form of departed players (Maurice Maxwell, Artie Bowers) and spent the entirety of the 2005-06 season with one true point guard - Chris Lowe - playing over 30 minutes per game.
His team was new. Juniors Rashaun Freeman and Stephane Lasme had to get acclimated to the new coach stomping the hardwood. Baskets came few and far between, and James Life - Ford's resident trigger-happy three-point shooter - took some bad shots that Ford surely would have restricted if his team wasn't so short on offense.
One year removed from a brand new start, the UMass basketball program starts over again with four transfers who will get significant playing time this season.
Gary Forbes, Tiki Mayben, Etienne Brower, and Luke Bonner transferred to UMass last year and, because of NCAA regulations, sat out the obligatory year. They watched from the sidelines during the games and practiced with the team throughout the year.
On Saturday, they will be in their first regular season game in over a year and a half, and this year's squad will need some time to adjust to game situations with the new guys.
"I was a transfer. I was a young man who sat out for a year," Ford said. "Anyone who transfers will tell you this: It takes a half a year at least to get back to your whole potential and to be 100 percent. That doesn't mean we still can't win. But when you're dealing with four guys who were in that situation, it's not like we're going to come out and knock the world out at the beginning of the season.
"When you're sitting out you have to take advantage of the time and get better as an individual first while you're learning the system," he added. "The biggest thing when you sit out is that some guys lose their skill or their ability. If you do what you're supposed to do and improve a little bit, then it gives you that competitive edge. If you practice with the same guys for an entire year, it takes a lot to get back into the flow. They have to be patient and push themselves to where they want to be without getting discouraged."
Ford has spent a lot of time in the preseason working on offense, something that the Minutemen lacked last year. Forbes, the transfer from Virginia who averaged over nine points per game as a sophomore, is the most prolific addition to the offense this season.
Forbes led the team with 21 points in last weekend's exhibition against Bridgeport and went an efficient 8-for-12 from the field. Forbes has a big body and can handle the ball well. Ford will use him at the point at times this season, and he will play at power forward as well because of his size.
Tiki Mayben wasn't with the team last season because of academic issues, but will see significant playing time this year because of his athleticism and his offensive skills. Mayben, like Lowe did last year, has had trouble controlling the ball on a consistent basis in the preseason, and might see time at the off guard when Lowe comes back from a team suspension.
"Tiki gives us a great presence," Ford said. "When you bring Tiki on the court, he's very much in control of the game because he has the ball in his hands a lot. The positive part of that is that he is very gifted and he sees plays a lot in advance. He makes everyone around him better."
Mayben will start on Saturday for the opening game because of Lowe's team suspension after the police arrested Lowe and teammate Nana Ampim outside of the Amherst Starbucks with charges of disorderly conduct. While the suspension won't affect Lowe's playing time this season, Mayben should see significant minutes while Lowe is running the point.
"[Mayben's] minutes will depend on his play," Ford said. "If he's playing great I'll play him 40 minutes right now. But he won't be able to do that because as much as I want him to I can't see him being able to play for that long. I think depending on how he's running the offense, where his turnovers are at, the foul situation and conditioning-wise will dictate his playing time."
Senior Rashaun Freeman, in his final campaign, will benefit greatly from Mayben and Forbes. The senior from Schenectady has been double-teamed for the bulk of his career because he represented the majority of UMass' offense. And though Freeman has had some talented athletes with him in the past, no one in particular could make defenses may for sending an extra guy Freeman's way.
UMass ranked ninth in the Atlantic 10 in scoring last season. The Minutemen averaged 64.9 points per game, behind bottom feeders like Saint Bonaventure and Duquesne. The Minutemen ranked eighth in scoring margin (plus 1.1 points per game) and ranked 12th in three-point percentage, finishing at just over 30 percent.
This season, Ford admitted that he has focused on offense so much in the preseason that the defensive work is behind.
"I've not been real happy with our defense the last couple of weeks, which is unusual because the defense is usually way ahead of the offense," Ford said. "I think we've focused so much on offense because we were so bad at it last year, which has probably put us behind a little bit defensively."
Turnovers were a tremendous problem for the Minutemen last season. Most of that responsibility fell on Lowe, who came in as a freshman played a prodigious amount of minutes for a newcomer. His inexperienced showed.
Lowe was susceptible to half-court traps and full court pressure from opposing teams because he kept his head down and dribbled right into them. This year, if the Minutemen are to become a postseason team, then Lowe will have to take better care of the ball. Last season, UMass ranked dead last in the Atlantic 10 in assist-to-turnover ratio.
"Turnovers have been way too high, Ford said. "We're giving up way too many layups in transition. We have point guards that are penetrating so deep that they have trouble getting back deep. We have some drills that we're trying to work on that."
Ford's main concern in this preseason has been the overall attitude of his team. UMass ranked second in a preseason poll among Atlantic 10 coaches and media, and Ford believes that his players haven't reacted well to the early praise.
"I don't worry too much about the talent or the players," Ford offered. "I'm just concerned if they can handle getting to where they want to be and not think that they've already gotten there. I hope our guys don't read into this, and I think that they did to an extent, that they've already achieved something.
"We need to become a team that's blue collar, a team that's tough, a team that wants to earn what everybody's saying. We've done nothing, I mean zero, to be a second-place team."
The Minutemen, according to Ford, also need some direction from an upperclassman. He believes that Lasme has the respect of the players on the team and will lead UMass through the turbulence this season.
"We want [Lasme] to do it more, grab a hold of guys," Ford said. "Rashaun does it by example because he plays so hard every day. Stephane would be the main guy that could step up and I think that everybody knows it. If there was one guy who brings it every single day I think it would be him. He's the one guy who I think has the capability. I just need him to do it more and hold people accountable."
Accountability is big deal for Ford right now, and his early displeasure with his team's intensity and focus is evident. Ford was not happy with his team's effort in the exhibition against Bridgeport, and consistency was a significant problem last season, especially on the road.
Productive trip to the Bahamas
The Minutemen might struggle in the early going, simply because the transfers haven't played a real game in a long time. Getting in practice time was essential for Ford and he scheduled an offseason trip to the Bahamas to play some games. Every Division I program is allowed one of those out-of-the-country trips every four years, and because UMass had only one freshman on the team this season - Ricky Harris - Ford decided it would be a good year to go.
The real prize, however, was the 10 days of practice that the NCAA allots for scheduling that kind of trip. Ford used that time to put in his offensive and defensive sets, and used the games to try out some different combinations of players. Finding out who plays well together will be essential for the team's success this season, and Ford has had relatively little time to do it. It may me five or 10 games into the season before the transfers get into a rhythm with the regulars.
"[The Bahamas trip] gave us a jump on the system as far as we had plays in and defenses in," Ford said. "It brought the team together a little bit and it gave the guys who sat out last year a chance to play in some games with real referees and real competition.
"Maybe we thought we were pretty good after the Bahamas trip because we had beaten some guys who I wouldn't say is the greatest competition," he added. "We have to come back to reality a little bit in that area. But we've moved along very quickly as far as having the system in."
Ford played under Rick Pitino and his up-tempo style that involved pressuring the ball for 94 feet. Ford wanted to play that style last season but with a limited bench he needed to preserve legs for the end of the season. With new and fresh bodies this season, Ford thought that he would have a pressing team. Now, he isn't so sure.
In the exhibition game against Bridgeport last Saturday, the Minutemen flashed a couple of different defensive sets, including a diamond full court press. Dante Milligan went up front with a combination of Life, Mayben, Harris, Forbes, and Thomas on the wings. Bonner, Freeman and Lasme played all the way back. Lasme's presence helps in the pressing system because the guards up front are willing to take more chances knowing that Lasme is behind them. Bridgeport broke the press with the dribble most of the time.
Ford has a long and athletic team, but not a super quick one. Guys like Milligan, Brower, Forbes, Thomas and Lasme are all big and athletic, but are not quick enough to contain quick opposing guards off of the dribble. With that type of team, Ford might be able to utilize a half-court trap effectively because his guys take up so much space and can shut down passing lanes in the half court.
"I don't know if we're going to press that much this year," Ford said. "I thought we were. You can't force a team to press. We will at different times and we will be up tempo offensively. We can do that. But we'll change defenses a lot."
"That's us," Freeman said. "That's the way he wanted to play last year and that's the way he wants to play this year. That's us. That is what people think when they play against us: that they will have to deal with the pressure that we give them."
UMass showed a 2-3 zone as a half-court defense last Saturday. Against the quicker opponents, the Minutemen could have a tough time matching up man to man. Ford is banking on a 2-3 zone because of his team's length. Because Milligan, Brower, Lasme, Forbes and Thomas all have big wingspans, they will be able to contest shots and shut down dribble penetration at the same time. The usual trouble with playing a zone is defensive rebounding, but with Lasme, Freeman and Bonner roaming the middle, rebounding shouldn't be a problem this season.
"We are doing a lot of different type defenses, and I think we're average at all of them. We are changing defenses a lot and doing a lot of different things, which is the reason why we were not being good at them yet."
The Minutemen's defense was one of the best in the conference last season, thanks in large part to Lasme, who led the A-10 with 3.86 blocks per game. His numbers put UMass at the top of the conferences' team-blocks list. UMass averaged 7.21 blocks per game last year, over 2.25 blocks more per game than second-place Xavier.
While UMass' perimeter defense last season left something to be desired, when opponents got into the paint their shots were sure to be contested. The Minutemen want to be an up-tempo team this season, and you can't do that without defense and pressure on the ball. Mayben, Lowe, Harris and James Life (who struggled defensively last season and worked on it during the offseason) will need to contain the dribble and make sure that no perimeter slashers get into the paint and break down the defense.
hris Lowe: The speedy point guard averaged 31 minutes per game last season when guards Maurice Maxwell (academic reasons) and Artie Bowers left the Minutemen short at the guard positions. The season didn't get off to a good start for Lowe when he was arrested for disorderly conduct outside of the Amherst Starbucks in October. Athletic Director John McCutcheon and Ford suspended Lowe from the exhibition game on Nov. 4 and the first regular season game on Nov. 11. Lowe was going to see reduced minutes during the season anyway, so the suspension shouldn't affect his playing time that much.
While Lowe led the Atlantic 10 in assists last season, he had some gaping holes in his game that he used this offseason to try and fill. Lowe has inherent shooting difficulty and couldn't knock down open shots with consistency last season. This year, however, Lowe will be more comfortable playing his own pass-first game because of the scoring threats that Ford brought in. Ford will also ask Lowe to get into the paint with penetration and break down the defense more this season.
Tiki Mayben: The New York City guard will help Lowe at point guard this season, and will see time at the two-guard position because of his shooting ability. While Lowe ran the team last season and averaged over 30 minutes per game, Mayben has a chance to take over the position from Lowe this season. He has adequate handling ability, can explode with the vertical leap, and can shoot the basketball. One of Mayben's evident weaknesses has been his turnovers - a stat that plagued the Minutemen last season and something that Ford will surely work on with his new guard.
"[Mayben is] a true point guard," Ford said. "The guys have to be ready for the ball at all times. We have to find that fine line with him of when it's too much, when he just needs to run the offense. I don't want to pull him back too much because his greatest strength is creating and making things happen."
Ricky Harris: Harris graduated Calvert Hall College High School in Baltimore, Md. and took a preparatory year at The Winchendon School in Winchendon, Mass. before coming to UMass. Ford announced his signing on April 12, 2006, during last year's season. Harris was a popular recruit last year. He averaged 17 points per game and shot 43 percent from three-point range at Winchendon. Ford tabbed him as a multi-talented guard and Harris earned the ranking of 27th-best fifth-year player in the country during his senior year.
Harris will be the third-string point guard this season, backing up Chris Lowe and Tiki Mayben. It looks like Ford will bring Harris along slowly to see how he acclimates to Division I basketball. With Lowe and Mayben in front of him, minutes might be scarce.
"He'll definitely back up the point guard position," Ford said. "It's a position that he's very comfortable with. He's going to be the third point guard once Chris Lowe comes back from his suspension."
Brandon Thomas: Thomas' versatile game was on display early last year. He can play multiple positions, has good ball-handling ability, and a decent shooting touch. Ford will use Thomas in multiple ways this season, including putting him in at power forward when the Minutemen want to go small with their lineup. Thomas ran into trouble last season when Ford tried him at point guard and he lost his confidence with the ball. Like Lowe, Thomas will benefit from the scorers around him because his selflessness and passing ability will help to set up his teammates.
Rashaun Freeman: The big man has waited a long time to have so many scorers around him. In his previous three years - especially last season - teams could afford to double team him on the block because of the lack of UMass shooters on the perimeter. This season, it will be different. Gary Forbes, Tiki Mayben, Ricky Harris, James Life and Brandon Thomas can all shoot the basketball. If Freeman does get doubled, he will need to learn how to pass out of double teams and find the open man. Because Freeman will relinquish some of his scoring load from last season, he will take advantage on the offensive boards because teams will turn their attention elsewhere. Freeman said that he is willing to do anything to win, including sharing the ball. This season will be a test of his selflessness.
Stephane Lasme: UMass' resident shot blocker returns with a new dedication to offense. Lasme was a defensive force last season, finishing third in the nation and first in the A-10 in blocked shots. Lasme garnered the most NBA attention because of his raw athletic ability, which helped him become one of the most dangerous defensive players around.
On the offensive end, however, Lasme was a liability. He struggled with his jumpshot and whenever he went outside of the paint, his defender simply stayed underneath the basket in help defense in essentially a one-man zone. During the offseason, Lasme worked on his post moves and his shooting, and we'll see if opponents will respect the big man when he ventures out of the paint.
Dante Milligan: Milligan has extreme size and athletic ability, and will come off of the bench to give either Lasme or Freeman a breather. Ford has encouraged Milligan to be more aggressive because he sometimes disappears during games. In the preseason, Ford has used him at the front of his diamond press because of his arm length and athleticism.
Luke Bonner: A transfer from West Virginia, the 7-foot Bonner will make an immediate impact on the UMass squad. Bonner has a soft shot from the perimeter and will be allowed to shoot from beyond the arc this season. Opposing big men will have to come out and defend him on the perimeter, which will open up driving lanes for the UMass slashers. Bonner is also an extremely hard worker who will contribute to the rebounding effort. The Minutemen led the A-10 in rebounding last season, and Bonner's presence should only better UMass in this category. He will most likely come off of the bench to replace Lasme or Freeman on the interior.
James Life: The trigger-happy Life will have to tone it down this season. In last year's campaign, Ford gave Life the green light from downtown because the Minutemen needed scoring desperately. This season, however, Ford has added some shooters and slashers, and Life's leash will probably be a lot tighter. With so many options this season, it will be hard for Life to maintain his early-and-often shooting habits.
Life was also a defensive liability last season, and has made a concerted effort to improve in that arena.
Gary Forbes: Forbes transferred from Virginia to UMass last season. He is Ford's most talented recruit and will bring a much-needed offensive weapon to Ford's squad. Forbes is 6-foot-9 with great ball-handling ability and a solid shot. His game is not overly flashy, and in the exhibition game against Bridgeport on Saturday he seemed very unselfish with the basketball. Because he will attract so much attention with the ball, his passing ability and willingness to share the scoring load will greatly help his teammates. Ford might play Forbes at point guard a little bit this year if turnovers become a problem, but he will play at the power forward and small forward spots for the majority of his minutes. Because of his size and handle, Forbes will cause some size and speed mismatches with opponents, something that Ford wants to take advantage of.
Etienne Brower: Brower transferred from Boston University last year and sat out the 2005-06 season. He will play this season at the small forward position and maybe the power forward position if Ford wants to go small and quick with his lineup. Brower in injured right now and it will take him a couple of weeks to recover.
Brower is a 6-foot-7 athlete. He has a significant vertical jump and will help the Minutemen create some mismatch problems with opponents. Brower will also be used heavily in defensive trapping schemes because of his athleticism and his length. He can also shoot the ball efficiently and rebound well. Ford has praised Brower for his versatility and believes that the former Terrier will help the Minutemen in nearly every aspect of the game.
Matt Pennie: Last year, the 6-foot-7 Pennie served as the team manager for the Minutemen. He made the team this year and will dress for all of the games and travel with the team. Pennie played his high school ball at Whitman-Hanson High School in Hanson, Mass. He averaged 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists as a senior.
Tony Gaffney: The Boston University transfer will sit out this season because of NCAA regulations. Gaffney played for the Terriers for two seasons before coming to UMass. He averaged nearly 16 minutes per game during his freshman season at BU and played in 17 games last season for the Terriers. Gaffney is 6-foot-8 and will help the Minutemen as a practice player this year. His long arms and athleticism with help Ford simulate some of the better athletes in the conference in practice.
Nana Ampim: Ampim was arrested with Chris Lowe for disorderly conduct in October, and Ford suspended him for the exhibition game and the first regular season game on Saturday. Ampim is an able and strong defender, but will not see minutes this season because of the team's depth at the guard positions.
hether or not it is well deserved, the Massachusetts men's basketball team has been on the receiving end of some high-quality hype heading into the 2006-07 season. The Minutemen were picked to finish second in the Atlantic 10, according to a poll among coaches and media in the conference.
The Sporting News and CBS Sportsline.com predict that UMass will return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
UMass coach Travis Ford isn't buying into the hype just yet.
"I was concerned being ranked second [in the A-10 preseason poll]," Ford said. "I mean I love it, but like I said at Media Day in Atlantic City, I hope our guys don't read into this. And I think they did, to an extent, that they think they've already achieved something."
The only thing that has been achieved thus far is an 88-61 exhibition win over the University of Bridgeport last Saturday night, and a 5-0 record against professional club teams in the Bahamas in August.
While the spotlight may be shining a little bit brighter on the Minutemen this year than in recent history, Ford and his players know that they haven't accomplished anything yet.
"Hype needs to be a word that's foreign to this basketball team," Ford said at Media Day last Thursday. "Expectations need to be foreign to this basketball team because we are not a team that's ranked second or third in magazines and preseason polls. We are not that team right now. We've done nothing to earn it.
"This is a team that needs to earn anything that they receive, and we've not done that yet. These guys need to have that mentality, and we've had a little bit of a problem with that."
So what is the hype all about?
Ford now enters his second season with the Minutemen. This year he has four starters returning in seniors Rashaun Freeman, Stephane Lasme, James Life and sophomore Chris Lowe. UMass will also benefit from the arrival of juniors Gary Forbes, Etienne Brower, sophomore Luke Bonner and freshman Tiki Mayben. Forbes, Brower and Bonner each transferred to UMass, while Mayben comes in as a highly-touted point guard.
With so much talent, and a lot more depth than last year, it's hard not to get caught up in the thought of what could be. Ford's players are starting to realize that they just have to block it all out and play basketball.
"We're coming together good, but what's bugging us now is all the hype," Freeman said. "From afar, we started to believe in what they were saying, but we just have to take it day-by-day because once you believe that, it affects everything because you assume that you're already there.
"I think that we have to take a step back, and become hungrier. We have to start from scratch and play as hard as we can to get to that point that everybody thinks we can be."
Freeman has been given five preseason honors. CBS Sportsline and The Sporting News named him to the Atlantic 10 First Team, while Street and Smith's named him the A-10's best rebounder heading into the season. Also receiving preseason honors were Lowe (A-10's best passer), Lasme (A-10's best shot-blocker and defender) and Forbes (A-10 Newcomer of the Year).
Ford admits that he created some of the hype on his own last year because he knew their play wasn't going to gather a lot of excitement. But this year he's not worried about the talent level of his players. He just doesn't want it to go to their heads.
"I do get excited about the future, but the guys have to back it up, and now is the time to quit talking it," Ford said. "The change I'm going to make is I'm going to be tough on these guys. I'm not trying to create [hype] anymore because these guys have shown that they haven't handled it overly well."
Junior Dante Milligan understands the hype. He's been there before. Milligan was a redshirt freshman at Pittsburgh before coming to UMass. He practiced and traveled with the Panthers team that went all the way to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2004. Since then, he's never listened to the preseason buildup.
"Truthfully, I'm not a big believer in hype," Milligan said. "I've never been. That's just something that has been instilled in me since at Pittsburgh. We have to stay humble and stay hungry because it's preseason hype. That's not saying that we have actually done anything yet, and it was evident last year. We went 13-15, and granted we have new guys that are going to come in and help us, that doesn't mean just those four guys are going to get us 20 to 25 wins."
The Minutemen were predicted to finish seventh in the A-10 in last year's preseason coaches' poll, and they finished, well, in seventh. There was a four-way tie for that seventh-place spot, with all four teams posting an 8-8 conference record.
One of those teams was Xavier, which has been picked to finish first in the conference this season. The Musketeers defeated UMass in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament last year, 75-66, and went on to win the A-10 Championship and advance to the NCAA Tournament.
Xavier and UMass have been slated as the teams to watch for in the conference this season. That being said, Ford does not want his players to read into the press clippings. He wants them to have the mentality of a team that knows it hasn't achieved anything yet to deserve this hype, and stop acting like what he calls, "a country club team."
"We need to come blue-collar," Ford said. "We need to become a team that's tough, a team that wants to earn what everybody's saying, and use that as motivation because we've done nothing, absolutely zero to be ranked second place. We are so far from a second place team right now, it's scary."
"We're so happy and we want to have that confidence, but it's a reality check and we have to realize that we still have a long way to go," Freeman said. "We can't expect that we're a tournament team the first time we step on the court. It's going to take some time."
Sure, there's a lot of hype surrounding the Maroon and White, but there's a lot of games to be played as well. If UMass keeps winning, the hype isn't going anywhere, but if it gets to their heads, it may be just that: hype.
"We have a lot of work to do with this basketball team," Ford said after Saturday's exhibition game. "We're an average team right now. Today, we're better than we were yesterday, I can say that. But we still have a lot of work to do.
"We'll get there, no question, we're going to get there. If they stay focused and understand what makes them a good team, then we possibly could be a pretty good team down the road."
eammates and friends know him as "Ray Ray." Fans know him as the hardest working big man around.
He has been a proud member of the Massachusetts men's basketball program for the last three-plus years, and has been the face of the franchise for every minute of it.
Rashaun Freeman is entering his last season as a Minuteman. Over the last three years he has been double- and triple-teamed by opposing defenses, the ultimate respect for an offensive player.
He has endured a coaching tenure, has beaten the No. 3 team in the country on his home floor, has captained the team for a year, and has enjoyed pretty much every award the Atlantic 10 hands out.
This season, however, is Freeman's last trip around the country in a UMass uniform - and he couldn't be more excited.
UMass coach Travis Ford has surrounded Freeman - for the first time in his career - with a steady balance of offensive weapons. Transfers Tiki Mayben and Gary Forbes give Freeman some needed reinforcements on the perimeter.
"It's definitely going to be different [this year] because the story on us was, 'Pack it in on Ray and let them shoot,'" Freeman said. "And that's no longer the story. I'm anxious to see how they play me. People are saying, 'Well, you won't score as much.' To be honest, I'm not looking to put up a lot of points this year. I'm looking to win."
He's never been the rah-rah type. He leads through his play, through his sweat and through his attitude. He is one of the only players in the country who has a work ethic that outdistances his talent.
Freeman isn't the most talented player around - not even in his own conference. He is a lefty, and uses a drop step to a lefty hook shot with mechanical consistency. Any defender who's done his homework knows that the move is coming. They just can't stop it.
The New York native trudges up and down the middle of the floor. You could draw lines from the edges of the paint down the whole length of the floor, and Freeman would stay between them. Some big men are soft because they are big. They fear the smaller players because of their size advantage.
Not this guy. Freeman will post hard even it's a middle school kid down there. And that's why he's been the most consistent player in the Atlantic 10 for the last three years. He averaged 15.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per game as a freshman and averaged 14 points and 9.3 rebounds last year.
Consistency. Down the line. No one has done it better than No. 1 in the maroon and white. And, in retrospect, he couldn't be happier about coming to UMass to play basketball.
"There are some players that have my talent that go to schools that are already winners, and they just go into the rotation," Freeman said. "I know it can become a winner and get this program back to where it was because that would be more of a story than if I were to just go to another school that already had a winning tradition. All I wanted to do was bring UMass back to where it was. That was my only mindset."
And he's closer now than he has ever been. Ford has hyped his program through the roof. The Atlantic 10's coaches and media ranked UMass second in their preseason poll, and Sporting News Magazine and USA Today's college basketball previews both pinned UMass as an NCAA committee choice to play on the biggest basketball stage on the planet.
For Freeman, this is new. He has experienced much over the last three years, but this is the only team he's played for that's been picked to go to the NCAA Tournament. His job, he says, is to make sure everyone stays on the straight and narrow.
"We listened to [the hype]. We read it," he said. "And I think that we started to think that things are going to come easy to us. Actually, they are going to be a lot harder. We have to get better in practice every day so we can reach the expectations. Just because someone has you ranked somewhere, it doesn't mean you are. I think we have the right mindset now because we know that nothing is going to come easy for us no matter what they say about us.
"It doesn't get any easier from here."
He knew that it wasn't going to be easy. But this might be the easiest offensive season for the big man. Freeman started with a different mental approach to the season last year and is continuing to develop a productive mentality as he enters his final season at UMass.
"I do realize that this is my last year and that's why I approach things so differently," he said. "When I was a freshman and a sophomore, I couldn't wait for practice to get over. Now, I never want it to end, because I know that this time next year it's going to be a business, and I'm not going to be where my friends are going to be.
"I'm definitely trying to approach the game differently and trying to get the most out of it. I'm willing to do anything to become a winner, because winners are remembered and losers just disappear."
Freeman won't be forgotten around the Pioneer Valley anytime soon. He has dedicated three years of hard work to UMass basketball, and he, along with the rest of the student body, is hoping something special will come out of this season.
"I don't want to leave any stones unturned," he said. "I've put too much into this program to not come out with something."
The fourth and final chapter of Rashaun Freeman's career starts on Saturday.
Here's to a good ending for the captain.
"njoy life today. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow may never come."
That is the tattoo on the arm of UMass junior forward Dante Milligan. Below the phrase is a picture of his late brother, Alonzo Milligan, who was shot and killed in a random shooting in East Harlem in June of 2005.
Over a year later, the death that was once so very hard on Dante, has turned into more than just a tragedy. It has become motivation.
"It has definitely inspired me a lot more," Milligan says about his brother's death. "At times last year it affected me too much. I wanted to do so much and I had so many things going on in my mind that things just kind of clashed. That's why I wasn't that productive last year because I was doing too much thinking out there. This year I'm more focused and I'm just trying to have a better season."
Dante had transferred to UMass just five months before his brother's tragic death. He began his collegiate basketball career at the University of Pittsburgh, where, after sitting out his first year as a redshirt and riding the bench during the Panthers' run to the Sweet 16, Milligan totaled seven points and six rebounds in five games in 2004-05.
Milligan was dealing with a nagging thumb injury throughout the beginning of the season, and had a difference of opinion with his coach, Jamie Dixon.
"Coach didn't want me to get surgery, which I knew I needed to get," Milligan recalls. "But yet, he didn't want to play me during the games, and he wanted me to just practice. So I decided that wasn't the best situation for me, and I decided to move on."
When he came to UMass in January of 2005, Milligan was forced to sit out that spring semester, and the first half of last season under the NCAA transfer guidelines.
Milligan wasn't on the move quite as much as his coaches were, however. He struggled to get accustomed to his new coaches that seemed to change everywhere he went. Ben Howland was the coach at Pittsburgh who recruited Dante, but right after he committed to the Panthers, Howland left to coach at UCLA.
Not long after his move to Amherst, a similar situation came about. Milligan was recruited by Steve Lappas, who was then fired by UMass Athletic Director John McCutcheon, and replaced with Travis Ford at the end of the 2004-05 season.
Milligan played in 22 games last year for the Minutemen, averaging 3.3 points per game and grabbing four rebounds per game, which ranked third on the team. He had nine games with five or more rebounds, while playing an average of 13.8 minutes per contest.
Since last season, Milligan has grown into a new man. Dealing with the loss of his younger brother has turned Dante into not only a stronger individual, but a better basketball player as well.
"Dante has been terrific," Ford says on his progression as a player. "He's probably been one of the most consistent players we've had so far in preseason. You know what you're going to get. Dante brings a great energy to the game. But I've seen a big improvement in him from last year to this year, and that's what we want to see. He goes at it hard everyday, and he's scoring around the basket. I like where Dante's at right now."
The Minutemen look for Milligan to play an active role in the low-post game this year, as the improvement in his game makes UMass' front line just as good as anybody's.
"Dante came a long way from last year," senior Rashaun Freeman says. "So we're looking at him to be a spark coming off the bench for us.
"I can't imagine what he went through when he lost his brother," he adds. "But I definitely know because of that, it has made him a stronger individual. I think that everything he does in life, he does it for his brother, for his family and for his mom. You have to respect somebody like that because a lot of people don't bounce back from those types of situations."
Dante did more than just bounce back. He keeps his brother in his mind at all times, and instead of sulking about the loss, he remains strong and celebrates Alonzo's life through personal memorials that can be seen on his sneakers, under his jersey, on his arm, and in his backpack.
Milligan has the words "R.I.P Zo Millz" on his sneakers, and he wears a T-shirt with a picture of Alonzo under his game jersey. However, his most prized possession is his brother's obituary card.
"I have one in my book bag, in my room, and at all times, just to keep him with me," Milligan says. "It's priceless."
Dante was just 22 months older than Alonzo. The two were extremely close, and whether it was playing basketball together in the neighborhood park in East Harlem, or meeting up at the train station when Dante came home from school, the memories will always be special.
"Growing up, it was just me, him, my mom and my dad," Milligan says. "He was the only person I really had, just two little brothers always hanging with each other, always enjoying each other's company. He's someone that I truly miss, and I always keep him by my side."
"They had a good time practicing together," Dante's mother Ruby says. "Late at night, they would go across the street to the schoolyard and shoot some hoops, and just spend time together. That memory will always be with Dante anytime he steps out on the court. He will always think about his brother being the sixth man."
Alonzo may be his sixth man, but Dante's mom and his little cousin have been his biggest influence during these tough times.
His mom, Ruby, was the one that called Dante to tell him that his brother was shot the night that it happened. He tried to calm her down over the phone from his home in New York by telling her that Alonzo would be just fine. Alonzo later died from a loss of blood.
Dante has been much closer with his mother since the shooting. And as a result, Dante has become a role model to his family.
"Everything I do, I do for them now," Milligan says. "I always have my brother in the back of my mind, but back at home I have my mom who's counting on me and looking up at me to be something positive and that positive energy in their lives. So I'm just focused on doing that for them."
This December, Dante and his mom will team up once again with the Boys Club of New York and Dan Schoenberg of MSG Sports to hand out the second annual Alonzo Milligan Mentorship Award. The scholarship is given in remembrance of Alonzo's constant leadership as a counselor for the Boys Club of Manhattan.
"They were so much a part of that boys club from age six," Ruby says. "Me keeping them involved in the boys club, I just watched them grow, as far as academically, into young men. Dante and Alonzo were well known throughout the boys club for what they had accomplished and what they were giving back to the community."
The scholarship is given to a New York City area student who has done well in high school and would benefit from the money in order to help go to college.
Dan Schoenberg, the Vice President of Publicity for MSG Sports, was Alonzo's "Big Brother" in New York's Big Brothers & Big Sisters program. He has helped the family create this scholarship that will be given out at this year's Cancer Classic college basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Alonzo's death has greatly affected the lives of the Milligan family. It took plenty of strength and courage to get through the tough times of losing their loved one, but they never would have been able to do it without the help of others.
"I also appreciate the coaching staff and his teammates for giving Dante a lot of support," Ruby says. "I was up at UMass a lot and the parents and kids really helped relieve our pain."
Ruby traveled with the team to the Bahamas in August, showing her strength, and comforting her son in the process.
"Everybody was real supportive," Milligan says about his teammates and coaches. "I couldn't have asked for a better supporting cast."
Dante received plenty of support from his teammates. He has grown into a mature, young adult since the unexpected death of his brother, and it's a great source of pride for his mother.
"I was really impressed," Ruby says. "And I see that he's really growing into a wonderful young man. Nobody knows when their time is up, and I'm looking at the fact that, one day, whenever my time is up, that he'll be even more prepared."
"I don't know if I've coached too many better people than Dante," Ford says. "It hurts him. I know he thinks about it. It's a devastating loss because they were close. [Dante and his mom] are very, very close, and they deal with it together. But they're strong. His mom's a strong, powerful woman, and it shows in Dante."
"I've definitely matured a lot more," Milligan says. "I'm starting to realize that, yeah, basketball is important, but there are more important things in life besides basketball. You can't rely heavily on basketball because once the game is done, you have to focus on your education so you can get a solid job when you're done playing basketball."
Dante isn't close to being done playing basketball. He still has two years of eligibility left, including this year.
With that said, the Dante Milligan legacy lives on at UMass, with a new chapter beginning Saturday night against Dartmouth. And while you won't be hearing his name announced over the loud speaker at the Mullins Center, Alonzo Milligan will always be UMass' sixth man.
cheduling can either make or break your season on the road to a national championship. And the Massachusetts men's basketball team is riding the high risk, high reward bus en route to Atlanta with the way UMass coach Travis Ford has picked his non-conference schedule this year.
OK, so maybe planning a trip to the Final Four in April is thinking a little bit too far ahead right now. But by looking at UMass' non-conference schedule for the upcoming season, one would have to wonder if Ford knows something the rest of the country doesn't.
"First and foremost, I think it will be a great challenge for our team and prepare them for conference [play]," Ford said. "When you go play at places like that, it's going to hopefully make your team better."
The Minutemen will be more than just prepared by the time they reach the Atlantic 10 portion of the schedule. Three of the 14 non-conference opponents that Ford has matched his team up against are ranked in the nation's Top 25 coaches' poll to begin the college basketball season.
UMass travels to No. 5 Pittsburgh on Nov. 18, and then hosts No. 15 Boston College at the Mullins Center just two weeks later on Dec. 2. The Minutemen then travel to the state of Kentucky to face Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals on Dec. 13, and the No. 22 Kentucky Wildcats just three days before Christmas.
Ford says this year's schedule is the most challenging he has faced in his 10-year coaching career. It certainly is the toughest schedule UMass has faced in recent memory. Other than preparing his team for a tough A-10 schedule that starts in January, there are other reasons why one would pit his or her team up against some of the best team's in the nation. One of which is national recognition.
"Hopefully if we prove to be a decent team, then we might have an outside chance of maybe to get an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament," Ford said.
"Then the selection committee could be looking at us saying, 'Hey they played a very tough schedule.' And also I think the fans will enjoy playing a tough schedule like that as well."
The upside to a schedule that has nine playoffs teams from last year, and nine teams that have been ranked in the Top 25 at some point over the last three years is that if UMass does upend one or more of those teams, then come March Madness, the selection committee may be willing to give the Minutemen their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1998.
"We know it's tough. We might have made it a little bit too tough, but we're going to go out and play hard, and take the approach that it's going to make us a better team. But also, it's just a great big bonus if we can pull off a couple wins against those teams."
CBS Sportsline.com has ranked UMass the No. 45 team in the nation, and has the Minutemen advancing to the NCAA Tournament as the No. 10 seed, facing Texas in the first round.
While that's pretty good news for UMass basketball fans, the Minutemen aren't any closer to March than they are to December, and whether or not the selection committee decides to burst their bubble, all could depend on how they fare against some of the top teams in the nation that Ford has put them up against.
"We got a long way to go right now with this basketball team," Ford said. "We've got a long way to go before we start thinking about trying to beat those type of teams. We've got to worry about Dartmouth. Right now, Dartmouth is a tough team for us the way we're playing. We're just not playing very good basketball right now."
All that matters right now to the Minutemen is that the season starts on Saturday night against Dartmouth. But if preseason rankings and scheduling are any indication as to what this team's expectations are behind the scenes, then pack your bags UMass, and don't forget to bring your dancing shoes.