Changes abounding

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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UMass basketball coach Travis Ford doesn’t know what to expect this weekend from his team, other than the fact that the Minutemen will open up their 2007-08 season in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in the BTI Tip-off Tournament.

The Maroon and White will play three games on consecutive days at the McLeod Center against three teams it has never played, with Cal Poly on Friday and Northern Illinois and Northern Iowa the following two nights.

“I don’t know what to expect, I really don’t,” Ford said. “I’m anxious to see who we are and what we’re doing. I have a feeling on how we’re going to play; is that going to equate to being good enough to beat other teams, that’s what I want to see.”

The Minutemen enter this season as the 2006 Atlantic 10 Co-Regular Season Champions, but come into this season as a very different team. The loss of inside presences Stephane Lasme and Rashaun Freeman forced Ford to alter the offense to a more up-tempo style that is more reliant on the 3-point shot. And it’s a change that he’s wanted to make since he arrived in Amherst.

“It’s comfortable coaching Rashaun Freeman and Stephane Lasme, it makes my job easy,” Ford said. “But I have never played as slow as we played the last two years, it was just different. It wasn’t something that I was used to doing, but the way we’re playing now is probably faster than I’ve ever played.”

That quick pace is set by point guard Chris Lowe, who Ford describes as the fastest guard from one end of the court to the other in the country. The biggest beneficiaries of his penetration will be likely starters Gary Forbes, Ricky Harris, Etienne Brower and either Dante Milligan or Luke Bonner.

“I’ve coached up-tempo pressing teams before, and I think we’re trying to take this to an extreme right now, which we need to do” he added. “Because we’re not a physical basketball team, we have to spread the court and make it fast. Make it an up-and-down game rather than a half-court, aggressive physical power game, because that’s not who we are.”

The new offense set in place will create a number of open looks from 3-point range, particularly for Harris and freshman Max Groebe. The duo combined to hit 16-of-29 3-pointers in the two exhibition games – a 103-66 win over American International on Nov. 1 and a 107-80 victory over Concordia two nights later.

The Minutemen shot well in both games, connecting on 14 three-pointers on 35 attempts against AIC and on 33 attempts against Concordia.

Friday’s regular season opener against Cal Poly will likely be the toughest test this weekend for UMass. The Mustangs finished last season at 19-11 and the coaches in the Big West picked them to finish second in the conference.

“From everything we’ve heard, they’re being promoted as one of the best teams they’ve had in school history,” Ford said about coach Kevin Bromley’s Mustangs. “They have three guards who are as good as any three guards we have in our league, as far as a committee is concerned. They are senior-laden, everything you could want as a coach. We got our hands full, that’s for sure.”

Cal Poly has three starters returning this season, including guards Trae Clark (9.1 points per game, 3.7 assists) and preseason all-conference selection Dawin Whiten (11.6 ppg).

The Minutemen take on Northern Illinois Saturday, a team that went 7-23 overall and 4-12 in the Mid-American Conference last season. The Huskies have been picked to finish fifth in the West Division and ninth overall in the MAC out of 12 teams. New coach Ricardo Patton led his team to a 1-1 record in the preseason, a 77-63 win over Augustana and an 87-70 loss to Aurora.

UMass will end the tournament Sunday against Northern Iowa. The Panthers ended 2006 with an 18-13 record under new coach Ben Jacobson and have been tabbed as the seventh-best team in the Missouri Valley Conference in the preseason poll. They beat both Wayne State and Bemidji State in their exhibition games.

Ford views this weekend as important to evaluate the team’s fitness level and feel of the offense, but realizes that it’s only three games.

“We have to understand that this is a process, and we just want to try to get better for each game,” he said. “My coaches have had to remind me more than once this week to not base everything on this weekend, because it’s probably not the best scenario to play three games in a row.”

Game notes

Current UMass Athletic Director John McCutcheon served in the same capacity for Cal Poly from 1992-2004, moving the Mustangs up a level from Division II