MHERST - UMass second-year coach Travis Ford has assembled a deep, experienced team that can assume different looks.
How Ford views the variables will determine whether the Minutemen can return to prominence in the Atlantic 10.
Take a glance down low and you’ll find compatible power forwards Rashaun Freeman (6-9) and Stephane Lasme (6-8), two seniors from the previous regime with NBA aspirations. They’ll be sharing minutes with Luke Bonner, a 7-foot transfer from West Virginia who is not the low post player his body size would indicate.
Senior Brandon Thomas made 13 starts last year at three different positions, but Ford has crowded the 3 and 4 spots with transfers Etienne Brower (BU) and Gary Forbes (Virginia). Dante Milligan worked hard for his minutes last year and isn’t keen on losing them to the newcomers.
The backcourt is less congested but just as complicated. Point guard Chris Lowe and shooter James Life were brought aboard on Ford’s watch and combined for 29 starts. But redshirt freshman Tiki Mayben and Winchendon School export Ricky Harris offer Ford the same 1-2 combination while Forbes and Thomas also have backcourt experience.
“It is an interesting mix,” said Ford. “If you look at our team, we have four fifth-year seniors so we are a very old, very experienced, veteran basketball team and hopefully that will spell some success for us.
“It’s an experienced group, it’s a group that’s been tested at every level. I’m excited about it, I really am with the preseason workouts and we’ve really focused on individual work.”
The biggest deficiency that has dogged Ford since the end of his first campaign (a 13-15 mark) has to do with the team’s performance on the road. The Minutemen were 10-2 in the Mullins Center, 2-11 on the road and 1-2 at neutral sites. In the A-10, UMass was 6-2 at home and 2-6 away.
“To be honest with you, that’s the thing that’s been on my mind more than anything since last season ended,” said Ford. “What can we do to make ourselves a better road team?”
Winning on the road requires the ability of cope with a hostile environment that emotionally feeds the opponent. To that end, Ford scheduled the Minutemen to play consecutive December road games against Louisville and Kentucky. Louisville boss Rick Pitino was Ford’s mentor and former coach at Kentucky, as well as a former UMass player, so there is an emotional component to both games.
“Our feeling this year is win on the road,” said Ford. “We have to be tough on the road and it’s not about Kentucky and Louisville. It’s about Xavier, Dayton and St. Joe’s. That’s where we have to play our best, on the road in conference. Our regular-season conference schedule is insane. It’s a beast.”
Freeman has been a First-Team Atlantic 10 selection two years running and is a preseason favorite to repeat. He ranks fourth in school history with a 53.9 field goal percentage and 15th in scoring with 1,258 points. Lasme was the A-10’s Defensive Player of the Year with 108 blocks and 195 rebounds.
“I’m seeing more determination from Rashaun so far,” said Ford. “He’s paid more attention to his body and to his weaknesses because so much came so easily to him early.
“I wouldn’t say he got complacent, but things came so easy that he never focused on his weaknesses. We’ve had several pro scouts come in and watch our workouts and I get a phone call almost every day about him.”