Great expectations: Minutemen face challenge of high optimism
By Matt Vautour, Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff Writer, 11/10/2006

AMHERST - Expectations and Travis Ford have been odd dance partners as the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team prepares for its second season on his watch.

He created the expectations, but doesn't like them. He doesn't think they're fair, but he's challenging his players to be good enough to live up to them.

Ford likes the attention, almost at much as he likes denouncing it.

The Minutemen haven't been in the postseason since 2000 or the NCAA Tournament since 1998. Heading into the 2006-07 season, there is rampant optimism that UMass is headed for a breakthrough season that could land the Minutemen back in the field of 64.

The high hopes stem a returning first-team all-conference big man (Rashaun Freeman), the league's defensive player of the year (Stephane Lasme), an all-rookie point guard (Chris Lowe) and five highly touted newcomers.

That has put Ford in a bit of an odd spot. He could have a winning season coming off a losing season and still have it seen as an underachievement. For many fans and all of the players, anything short of that trip to the NCAA Tournament would be a disappointment.

Ford suspected pretty early last year that he didn't have a team that could contend for a postseason berth. So while he focused on trying to be successful and build a foundation, the 2006-07 season was always in the back of his mind.

Tiki Mayben works against Ricky Harris
Gary Forbes prepares to drive on Stephane Lasme
In pre-season practice, Tiki Mayben works against Ricky Harris (top), and Gary Forbes prepares to drive on Stephane Lasme.
At his many speaking engagements with fans, alumni and donors, Ford talked about the future and star potential of Gary Forbes, Etienne Brower, Luke Bonner and Tiki Mayben, partly because he believed it and partly because it kept fans hopeful about the future while the Minutemen struggled in the present.

His statements were memorable. Forbes was "a candidate to be Atlantic 10 Player of the Year" and "If you had 12 Etienne Browers, you could win a lot of basketball games." Luke Bonner had a chance to be "one of the best players to ever play at UMass."

As fans left those gatherings, suddenly it didn't matter that the Minutemen might be under .500 that night, because next year would be better. The light at the end of the tunnel was a bright one.

"I understand I probably created some of it," Ford said. "But when you come into a program that needed some energy and some excitement, you have to create it some way and I knew our play wasn't going to create it last year."

Last season was about next year, which has become this year and now it's here. Ford and UMass are at the end of that tunnel and people are expecting those great things.

Ford's optimism about the future reached beyond the alumni functions. Several preseason basketball magazines as well as the Associated Press have predicted that Minutemen will return to the NCAA Tournament. The Atlantic 10's coaches and media picked UMass second in the conference's preseason poll.

But as the fans got caught up in the hype, so did the players. Ford didn't like the way his team was responding and has tried to reel in the runaway optimism.

"We have to come back to reality a little bit. Can they handle getting to where they want to be and not thinking they're already there?" Ford asked. "I think our guys think they've already achieved something. I want them to try to overachieve.

"They've been acting like a country club team," Ford added. "We need to become blue collar and be a team that's tough - that wants to earn what everyone is saying and use that as motivation. We've done nothing to be ranked second."

Senior captain Rashaun Freeman admitted the players got caught up in their early hype.

"We listened to it and we read it and we started to think things were going to come easy to us, but actually it's a lot harder," Freeman said. "We need to get better in practice every day so we can reach those expectations. Just because someone has you ranked somewhere doesn't mean you're already there. We know now that nothing is going to come easy for us."

The goal hasn't changed. Ford still wants his team striving to hear its name called on Selection Sunday, but he wants the players committed to doing what it takes to get there. In August, he set a goal of making the NCAA Tournament. Standing in the front of a boardroom at the Atlantis Resort as part of the Minutemen's preseason trip to the Bahamas, Ford enthusiastically walked his players through a team-building lesson. When he was finished he turned to them.

"I used to not be a big goal setter," he told them. "The media would ask me every year what my goals for the season were. But I didn't like to set long-term goals."

He turned to an easel next to him, flipped to an empty page and set a goal.

"NCAA Tournament."

"That's our goal, right?" he asked.

The moment was a pivotal one for the UMass players, who sat up straight and glanced at each other excitedly. Before any magazines or media said the Minutemen had the talent to make the NCAA Tournament, their coach did.

"It means a lot to a lot of us that they're thinking about the same thing," Lasme said on that day in August. "They really believe in us and know what we're capable of."

Lasme said that goal hasn't changed, just the approach to achieving it.

"It's still our goal to get there and go as far as we can, but we have to work hard to get better," he said.

The Minutemen open their 2006-07 Saturday when they host Dartmouth at 5 p.m. at the Mullins Center. They will begin trying to live up to those expectations against tough nonconference opponents and an improving Atlantic 10.

Senior guard James Life said the Minutemen are ready.

"We know we have a good team. We should win a lot of games. We have a lot more expectations that we did last year," Life said. "The expectations put a lot of pressure on us. We have to work hard every day to make sure we live up to that."


Circled on UMass calendar: Five key games highlight schedule

AMHERST - The University of Massachusetts men's basketball team is not shy about wanting to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.

The Minutemen will have a chance to earn an automatic bid during the Atlantic 10 Tournament in Atlantic City in March. But if they want to have a chance at an at-large bid, they can start positioning themselves right away.

Five games on the non-conference slate stand out among the 14. A win in any of the five games could help sway the selection committee in March.

Pittsburgh

Rank: No. 4 A.P.; No. 5 Coaches

Time and place: 5 p.m. Nov. 18, Colonial Classic, Petersen Events Center, Pittsburgh

The Minutemen will get tested pretty early facing the Panthers in their third game of the season and the second in the Colonial Classic, a three-game round-robin event in Pittsburgh.

Pitt, which went 25-8 last year and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, has been a guard-oriented team in recent years led by Brandon Knight and then Carl Krauser, but the 2006-07 Panthers will be decidedly strong inside.

The reason for that is senior Aaron Gray, a throwback center at 7-0, 270 pounds. He averaged 13.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per game last year and is a likely All-American.

Pitt is counting on small forward Mike Cook to make an impact in his first Steel City season after transferring from East Carolina.

Boston College

Rank: No. 15 both polls

Time and place: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2, Mullins Center

This is the by far the best home game this season for the Minutemen. Barring a rough November, the Eagles will likely be ranked in the top 25 when they come to Amherst.

BC had an impressive start to its tenure in the Atlantic Coast Conference last year with a 28-8 record and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles lost standout big man Craig Smith and steady point guard Louis Hinnant, but there are plenty of reasons for BC to be optimistic about this season.

The Eagles will likely look at least a little different as the offensive focus shifts from Smith on the blocks to the wings. Senior Jared Dudley will be called on for scoring, rebounding and leadership, and he's shown the capability to handle it.

He will be helped on the perimeter by Sean Marshall and Tyrese Rice, who takes over at point guard.

Inside the Eagles are hoping that junior Sean Williams blossoms. He's had problems off the court and lacked consistency on it. But his shot-blocking skill is unmistakable. He only played half of the season last year, but if he can approach his potential, he can go a long way to offsetting Smith's loss.

Louisville

Time and place: 7 p.m. Dec. 13, Freedom Hall, Louisville, Ky.

UMass alumnus Rick Pitino has played some classics in the past against his alma mater. This will be his first time facing the Minutemen since taking over at Louisville. The Cardinals are coming off a disappointing season, but most people expect Louisville to bounce back this year.

The Cardinals will offer an interesting test for the Minutemen largely because they play a similar style and have been doing it longer.

Juniors Juan Palacios and David Padgett lead a frontcourt that should get a boost from highly-touted rookie Derrick Caracter. Pitino will need some of his well-regarded rookies to step up, especially in the backcourt, for the Louisville to challenge in a tough Big East.

Kentucky

Rank: No. 22 both polls

Time and place: 7 p.m. Dec. 22, Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.

The Wildcats certainly should be battle tested by the time the Minutemen and Kentucky alumnus Travis Ford come to town. By then they already will have faced North Carolina, Indiana and Louisville as well as some other potential big-name schools in the Maui Classic.

Randolph Morris is the best of the three returning starters along with shooting guard Joe Crawford and small forward Bobby Perry. The Cats could be in for some growing pains early.

Ramel Bradley takes over at point guard, which could provide some steadiness that was missing with current Celtic Rajon Rondo, who wasn't quite a fit in Tubby Smith's system. The Wildcats have high hopes for their freshman class, which will be counted on to provide key minutes off the bench.

Miami

Time and place: 7 p.m. Jan. 2, Mullins Center

If the Minutemen are legitimately a good team, this game needs to fall in the win column.

The loss of guards Robert Hite and Guillermo Diaz leaves the Hurricanes with nobody who averaged double figures in points a year ago.

Miami is picked at or near the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference just about everywhere. The Hurricanes will need a considerable boost from previously unproven players to avoid that.

Even if Miami struggles, winning the game could help UMass boost its RPI because the Hurricanes are in the ACC.

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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