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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Massachusetts coach Travis Ford knew he was asking for trouble. But what choices did he have? If he wanted to turn around a program like UMass -- which rocked the rafters in the Curry Hicks Cage and Mullins Center in the 1990s, but in recent years had become such an afterthought that the hottest ticket at the Mullins Center was the hockey team -- he'd have to take a few risks.
The risks Ford had in mind were acquiring the talent the Minutemen needed to compete in the A-10. In the 1990s, UMass had players like Marcus Camby, Donta Bright, Derek Kellogg and Carmelo Travieso, and Minutemen fans thought the good times were going to roll forever. But because of either poor recruiting or plain bad luck, the talent dried up by the 2000s.
Now Ford had the chance to acquire four players who could put UMass back on the radar: Virginia transfer Gary Forbes, Boston University transfer Etienne Brower, West
Virginia transfer Luke Bonner, and high school non-qualifier Tiki Mayben. The bad news? All would have to sit out the 2005-2006 season. So with four scholarships wrapped up in players who weren't even going to play, Ford was essentially mortgaging the present to guarantee a brighter future.
"I knew we'd take a hit," Ford said. "But we had the opportunity to fill some voids, make us better."
The hit wasn't as bad as he thought it would be. Dressing eight scholarship players (UMass started with nine, but Maurice Maxwell was dismissed from the team 10 games in), the Minutemen went 8-8 in the A-10, 13-15 overall. Now, with four starters from that team, plus Forbes, Brower, Bonner, Mayben and freshman guard Ricky Brown, UMass has perhaps the most talented roster in the conference.
"We've improved, no question," Ford said.
Usually, a statement like that before the season is pure speculation. But Ford at least has some frame of reference after a seven-day, five-game trip to the Bahamas in August.
Per NCAA rules, the Minutemen were also allowed to practice for 10 days before the trip. Although it played against inferior competition, UMass scored points like an NBA team from the 1980s, averaging 126 over five games. The Minutemen also bonded, which was important because one of the negative aspects of having more good players is there's less playing time.
"We did a lot of interactive things on what it means to be a great teammate," Ford said. "We have nine or 10 guys who all think they can play, but we need everyone to understand their roles.
"We're 10 or 11 deep. I'm not going to play 10 or 11 guys every game, but at least I have the option. Last year guys had a pretty good idea they'd be playing, because there was nobody else to play."