MHERST -- Gary Forbes was surprised. Like a lot of people with an interest in college basketball, the University of Massachusetts forward puzzled over the preseason coaches and media poll, which predicted the Minutemen would finish second in the 14-team Atlantic 10.
After all, UMass is coming off a 13-15 season, which included a mediocre 8-8 league record that left it in a four-way tie for seventh place. In the last five years, the Minutemen have gone a collective 33-47 in the A-10, and they haven't qualified for postseason play since a one-and-done appearance in the 2000 NIT. So being picked second (behind Xavier, which returns its top seven players from last year's 21-win, NCAA Tournament squad) would represent a quantum leap.
But Forbes's surprise about the pick came from another perspective. "I took it as an insult," he said.
So it is with the new-look Minutemen, a team longer on talent than any in recent vintage -- and shorter on patience. With four starters returning, led by A-10 first-team pick Rashaun Freeman and the league's Defensive Player of the Year, Stephane Lasme, plus a talented trio of transfers and a much-touted freshman point guard, the Minutemen are looking to leap to the head of the class.
Sure, they will trot out the company lines about being "a work in progress," (counseled by second-year coach Travis Ford, who is deep into his campaign to tamp down expectations), but make no mistake: Anything short of a return to the NCAA Tournament would constitute a disappointment.
Delayed gratification? How good can UMass realistically be?
Forbes smiles and says without hesitation: "We can be great."
It's been a long time. In the 1990s, mostly under John Calipari, the Minutemen made seven straight NCAA appearances, highlighted by the 35-2 Final Four year in 1996. They haven't been to the preferred tournament since 1998. The extended stretch of mediocrity -- or worse -- has transformed the once-rocking Mullins Center into a ho-hum house of hoop.
Last year, the fan base was somewhat reenergized by the arrival of Ford, an impassioned young coach who had played point guard at Kentucky for former UMass guard Rick Pitino. At Ford's opening press conference, one could sense the Pitino/Calipari swagger, nuanced with bluegrass twang, when he said the Minutemen would be "the hardest working players in America," and the Mullins Center would become "the hottest ticket in the East."
The early returns were good. The Minutemen jumped out of the gate 9-6, culminating in a 60-34 thrashing of archrival Temple on national television.
There were flashes of brilliance. At times, Freeman was a fierce force in the post, averaging 13.6 points and 9.3 rebounds. Lasme could be a one-man swat team with 108 blocks, third most in the country. Streak shooter James Life could put points on the board in a hurry. Freshman point guard Chris Lowe sometimes ran a crisp show, leading the league in assists (4.89 per game). And Jeff Viggiano, the team's lone senior, was the team's unquestioned "glue guy."
But the early success proved to be a mirage. The Minutemen spent most of the year with only eight scholarship players. They were vulnerable to foul trouble and injury. With little margin for error, they were knocked off kilter with just one or two subpar individual performances. They had to play a deliberate style that went against Ford's preference for an uptempo game. Their limited perimeter shooting meant Freeman and Lasme often got bottled up inside.
When opponents began to exploit these weaknesses, UMass sputtered to the finish, losing nine of its last 13, and spending another March watching the Big Dance on television.
The bitter pill for Ford was sweetened by his knowledge of what was waiting in the wings. His "scout team," led by the transfers, often overpowered the regulars in practice -- much as Julius Erving's freshman team regularly took it to the UMass varsity back in 1968-69 (when the NCAA forbade freshmen from playing with the big boys). Ford is not, by nature, given to delayed gratification, but he knew that before too long he could unleash a team much more to his liking.
Now it's ready to roll.
Three big additions The transfer troika is led by Forbes, who comes to UMass with lots of advance billing. In 2004-05, he was one of the better freshmen in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference, starting 17 games for Virginia, averaging 7.6 points. As a sophomore, he averaged 9.4, including a 23-point game against North Carolina, and a 17-point, 10-rebound effort against Duke.
But when coach Pete Gillen was fired at the same time Steve Lappas was let go at UMass, Forbes decided to shift gears. He knew Ford's assistant coach, Steve Middleton, from Brooklyn, where they had both grown up. Forbes also was familiar with a number of UMass players from the New York area, and he says he was drawn to the school because of its hoop heritage with Dr. J and Marcus Camby.
Forbes, with his long arms and great court vision, adds several dimensions to the team. As a slasher and 3-point shooter, he is best suited to the wing, but in an exhibition game last Saturday against Bridgeport, he proved to be a legitimate 6-foot-7-inch point guard, something the A-10 almost never sees. He also is capable of playing power forward. "He's a great scorer," said Lasme. "He can score any way possible."
Also bringing multifaceted help is 6-8 Etienne Brower, who comes to UMass after two years at Boston University. As a sophomore, he started all 29 games and averaged 8.3 points. Ford calls him "our most versatile player," and says he will remind fans of Viggiano. Brower is sidelined with an ankle injury, but is expected back in a week.
The third transfer brings another look UMass has never seen, a 7-foot center who shoots the three. Luke Bonner played sparingly in one year at West Virginia, a season in which the Mountaineers made it to the Elite Eight. Now he is closer to his New Hampshire roots. In the exhibition game against Bridgeport, Bonner hit both an old-school hook shot and a trey. The latter is no fluke, says Ford, who regards the mop-topped Bonner as one of the team's best 3-point threats. Bonner also brings some impressive hoop bloodlines with older brother Matt playing for the Toronto Raptors.
The new crew also features freshman point guard Tiki Mayben. As a 15-year-old, Mayben was regarded by some scouting services as the best point guard prospect in the nation. He committed to Syracuse, but did not qualify academically. After paying his way through UMass and sitting out last year, Mayben is raring to go. He brings plenty of flash to the floor.
"He is very gifted," says Ford. "He sees plays in advance that I don't see, that other players don't see. The negative side of that is he's got to cut down on his turnovers."
Mayben's two-edged sword was apparent right away in the exhibition game. On the first possession, he found Lasme with a great entry pass for a two-handed dunk. On the next possession, he dribbled behind his back in traffic, leading to a turnover and a layup on the other end.
"Sometimes you want your teammates to say, 'Man, how'd he see that? How'd he get that there?' " Mayben said. But in game situations, Mayben insists, "It's straight to what's going to get us winning."
UMass opens at home tonight against Dartmouth. Stiffer tests await soon after with games at Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Kentucky. The Minutemen should have a read by Christmas about whether their ambitions are realistic.
To be sure, the effort is there. With 44 seconds remaining in the exhibition game and UMass ahead by 28, Forbes -- already with a game-high 21 points -- hit the floor hard near halfcourt in pursuit of a loose ball.
It's the sort of play Ford loves to see, the kind that he is trying to taunt out of the Minutemen by referring to them as a "country club team."
"We're an average team right now that is striving to be good," insists Ford. "Then we're going to strive to be great."