Transfers of Power

Oct. 24, 2006


By Bryan Armen Graham



Bryan is a basketball editor for and contributes on a regular weekly basis.
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In the decade since becoming the first Atlantic 10 school to advance to the Final Four, Massachusetts has existed in a state of basketball limbo.


During five seasons under James "Bruiser" Flint and four more under Steve Lappas, the Minutemen recorded 136 victories and 137 defeats and made just two NCAA Tournament appearances -- both under Flint while John Calipari-recruited talent still filled the stat sheet.


So when the time came to choose a successor to Lappas, the school wanted a real program-changer. And if early returns are any indicator, UMass athletics director John McCutcheon got his guy.


When Travis Ford accepted the position, the Eastern Kentucky coach had just resuscitated a Colonials program which had slipped to 9-44 during the two seasons before his arrival. Five years later, the former Kentucky point guard had led EKU to an Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship and the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance in a quarter-century.


It didn't take Ford long to make waves in Amherst, though his impact took the form of a gamble which likely compromised the success of his first UMass team. Ford invested four of his allotted 13 scholarships on transfer students -- in effect pawning the immediate present for the chance at a more promising future. (Last year's undermanned Minutemen finished 13-15 overall with an 8-8 mark in Atlantic 10 play.)


For the Minutemen, that future -- and potential payout -- starts Nov. 11 when Dartmouth pays a visit to the Mullins Center.


"Last year, we were so thin in terms of depth with just eight scholarship players. It was our staff's first year so it was a transition year," Ford said. "But now, we have a year under our belts. We have a lot of players that are very good and will help us compete at a high level."


Returning for the Minutemen are Rashaun Freeman and Stephane Lasme, who comprise one of the nation's more formidable frontcourt tandems. Freeman, a 6-foot-9 forward who won A-10 Rookie of the Year honors as a freshman, averaged 13.7 points and 9.3 rebounds as a junior and should contend for the Conference Player of the Year award in his final season. Lasme, a 6-foot-8 senior whose 3.9 blocked shots per game ranked third in Division I, is the conference's reigning Defensive Player of the Year.


But the impetus behind the Top 25 buzz surrounding the Minutemen is the germination of seeds that were sown upon Ford's arrival: The four transfers who had to sit out the 2005-06 season per NCAA rules.


·          Gary Forbes (Virginia), a 6-foot-7 junior forward whose mercurial career with the Cavaliers included a 23-point performance against North Carolina during his sophomore season and any number of listless outings against far inferior opponents. Forbes has two years of eligibility remaining. Said Ford: "He has played in the highest level in the ACC and I think he'll be ready for the competition in our conference."


·          Luke Bonner (West Virginia), a 7-foot, 245-pound bruiser who played two seasons with the Mountaineers under John Beilein, including a role as a deep reserve on the Morgantown school's Elite Eight team. Bonner has three years of eligibility remaining. Like former teammate Kevin Pittsnogle, Bonner has a propensity to take and make long-range baskets. Said Ford: "[He] brings us shooting from the perimeter as a seven-footer -- he may be the best three-point shooter on the team. Luke has a great understanding from the post position, and really understands the game and our offense."


·          Etienne Brower (Boston University), a versatile 6-foot-7 swingman who averaged 8.3 points and 5.4 rebounds for the Terriers as a sophomore. Brower has two years of eligibility remaining. Said Ford: "He is an extremely hard worker. If you had 12 Etienne Brower's on your team you would be very successful because he can do a lot of everything very well. I am very excited about all of the different roles Etienne will play for us. It will be endless."


·          Tiki Mayben (Syracuse), who has yet to play a collegiate game after failing to achieve the requisite SAT score to enroll at Syracuse. Ford recruited Mayben, a heralded point guard prospect who averaged 21 points and 10 assists as a senior at Troy (N.Y.) High, before incumbent floor general Chris Lowe's breakout season -- but his addition gives the Minutemen some healthy depth at the one. Said Ford: "He does a lot of things that you just don't teach. His ability to handle the basketball is sensational. He has great court vision and he sees plays happen before they happen."


All of a sudden, a team that started last season with just nine scholarship players -- a figure that was reduced to eight when Maurice Maxwell was dismissed from the team just 10 games in -- is one of the league's deepest and most talented units.


"Each of the newcomers brings a dimension that will really enhance our team and make our team much better," Ford said.


The Minutemen got a head start on most of their Division I competition with a trip to the Bahamas in late August, which allowed Ford to start practice 10 days prior to departure under NCAA rules. Aside from bonding as teammates off the court, UMass looked razor sharp on the hardwood while averaging over 126 points in five victories over international competition.


Another thing Ford has brought to Amherst is a beefed-up schedule -- including dates with Pittsburgh, Boston College, Kentucky, Louisville and Miami -- that will ensure the Minutemen will be battle-hardened for Atlantic 10 competition.


With the influx of talent comes heightened expectations. Most of the preseason preview rags have the Minutemen slated to return to the NCAAs for the first time since 1998. But Ford has tempered his team's prospects at every turn, encouraging his charges -- and program's revitalized fan base -- to value the journey as much as that potential Selection Sunday reward.


"I am not big on expectations. You want to have fun with the season. For our fans, I don't want them to expect that we have to go to the NCAA Tournament. Yes, we want to go to the NCAA Tournament. Yes, we have a team that I think is capable of going to the NCAA Tournament. But it's like going to a party that you are so excited to go to: It becomes anti-climatic," Ford said. "If you start labeling what you need to do to have a successful season, then people start saying, `You should have done that, so it's no big deal.'


"I tell everyone to enjoy the ride. This is a good basketball team and we want to the fans to enjoy every single game, enjoy watching this team play, and enjoy watching these seniors go out for the last time."



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