MHERST - With the flash and dazzle of Midnight Madness behind, the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team will begin real practice Saturday.
The NCAA allows coaches to work with players for two hours a week from the start of classes until Midnight Madness. After returning from the team's August trip to the Bahamas, UMass coach Travis Ford used that time for mostly small group and individual work sessions.
''When we got back we really broke down each player and talked about what they did over those 10 days, their strengths and weaknesses,'' he said. ''There was more teaching than implementing in the past five weeks.''
Ford said the combination of his team's experience and the Bahamas trip has it well ahead of where it was at the start of practice last year.
''I'm changing a few things. I didn't like everything about our press in the Bahamas,'' he said. ''I'm going to change a little bit with our offense, but nothing drastic at all. It's not going to be a lot of new stuff. We're going to be able to move very quickly once practice starts.''
The Minutemen will have three new players practicing regularly for the first time. Freshman guard Tiki Mayben couldn't practice last season as an academic nonqualifier, but he participated in the Bahamas trip. Freshman Ricky Harris and transfer Tony Gaffney will be practicing for the first time.
Otherwise the Minutemen are a unit used to playing together.
''It's an experienced group and one who's been tested. I'm excited about it I really am. The summer trip went great,'' Ford said. ''The preseason workouts have been terrific.''
Ford said knowing there would be competition for playing time motivated the players in the summer.
''We have guys ... that have improved their games because they knew if they didn't they would have gotten lost in the mix,'' he said. ''They had no choice.''
Ford will spend the month until the team's Nov. 11 season opener against Dartmouth (7 p.m., Mullins Center) trying to figure out a rotation.
''I have to get down to an eight- or nine-man rotation. I'm not a big believer that you can win with 10 guys,'' Ford said. ''It's nice to have the option. It's better to have this situation than what we have last year.''
TURNOVER CONCERNS - The Minutemen in 2005-06 had 101 more turnovers than assists which that frustrated Ford throughout his first season in Amherst. Fixing that number, while playing at a much faster pace, is a priority.
''We led the league last year in turnovers. What can we do in practice every day to improve on this?'' he asked. ''The way we're going to play, we're not going to have the fewest turnovers in the league. I don't want that. If we're only turning it over 10-11 times, we're not playing the way I want to play. But our goal is going to be 14, 15 or less, not 18 like last year. And we played slow last year when 10 or 11 should have been right. The way Tiki Mayben plays, he's going to have a few turnovers. He's going to have a lot of assists, but he'll have a few turnovers.''
GAFFNEY HAPPY - Gaffney would likely have been a key member of Boston University's team this season, but even though NCAA rules force him to sit out this season, he's glad to be in Amherst.
''I love it. It's been a big difference from Boston, but it's a good change,'' he said. ''The coaching staff is great. We have a close-knit team. The guys have been great. Classes are going well.''
Growing up in Berkley, Gaffney was a fan of both UMass and Boston College.
''I grew up a UMass Minuteman fan and a Boston College Eagles fan. I've lived in Massachusetts my whole life so it's been a childhood dream of mine to wear a UMass or a Boston College jersey,'' he said. ''I remember watching Marcus Camby when I was 10 years old and loving it.''
Gaffney is the second ex-Terrier on the Minutemen as he joined Etienne Brower, who sat out last year.
''I had an awkward situation with my coach there. (Dennis Wolff) is a tough coach to play for. I'm not going to sit here and bash him cause that's not the type of person I am,'' said Gaffney, who is one of several Terriers to transfer in recent years. ''I figured I had two years left to play so if I could make a better situation work and be happy somewhere else I'd do that.''
He's happy with the result so far.
''I'm finally having fun playing again,'' he said. ''So far it's been great.''
Brower said he is glad to have Gaffney with him in Amherst.
''He's my boy. I just want him to have a better experience than he did at BU,'' Brower said. ''It's real fun. I like seeing where he's at, because he's in the same spot I was last year. He's a real social kid so he's having a lot of fun and he's playing well.''
Matt Vautour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more UMass coverage including a frequently updated UMass sports blog, go to www.dailyhampshiregazette.com/umsports