Ford, Minutemen pleased with season

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian staff

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Brian Tedder, Collegian

NEW YORK – Heads down.

Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Travis Ford and his team walked that way to the locker room following the loss to Ohio State last night in the finals of the National Invitation Tournament.

It was a tough way to end the season for the Minutemen, especially after engineering three straight improbable comebacks just to get there.

After losing a hard-fought and heartbreaking NIT title game, the Minutemen now feel stung for the second time this season. The first came when UMass got the disappointing news on Selection Sunday that it didn’t make the NCAA Tournament.

They haven’t made one in 10 years. But the Minutemen bounced back from that disappointment and made their longest postseason run in school history.

Last year’s team narrowly missed out on the NCAA Tournament as well – and in similar fashion. Consecutive early exits in the Atlantic 10 Tournament likely did them in. And last season seemed like the time for UMass to make the Big Dance, with one of the best frontcourt duos in school history with Stephane Lasme and Rashaun Freeman.

With the loss of those two to graduation – in addition to 3-point threat James Life – the 2007-08 season seemingly had the makings of a “rebuilding” year for UMass. The frontcourt was decimated and Ford had to completely alter the team’s style of play because of it.

With the incredibly high-tempo offense newly installed, everyone knew the Minutemen would, at the very least, be fun to watch. Albeit the NIT and not the NCAAs, few could have thought they would be one of the last six teams in the country playing in April.

It usually takes a few years of adjusting to a completely new style of play to pay dividends. But Ford and his group made it work right away.

“I don’t think there’s any question that they achieved a lot more than anybody thought [they would] when we started back in October,” Ford said. “I can’t be [more] proud of a team as I am of these guys.”

For seniors Gary Forbes, Etienne Brower and Dante Milligan, the way their careers ended was a major disappointment. But at some point this season they’ve all talked about leaving the UMass program better off than it was when they arrived – and they felt they did just that.

“I definitely would have liked it to be better, to be the first team to win a championship, but you can see from the fan support that we made a difference since I’ve been here,” Forbes said. “This has been a great roll.”

“I definitely believe that we are leaving the program in better shape than it was, and we can only just hope for the best for the future,” added Milligan. “I can’t say enough about what coach Ford has done for everybody here at the program. The UMass experience has been great.”

Without those seniors next season, UMass loses the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year (Forbes), an emerging low-post presence (Milligan) and a multi-faceted player that contributes in every way (Brower). Similar to this season, fans may expect a drop-off heading into 2008-09.

But there will be plenty of talent returning next year. Point guard Chris Lowe is back for his senior season and will likely be a top point guard in the A-10. Ricky Harris was A-10 Most Improved Player of the Year and David Gibbs and Anthony Gurley – highly-touted newcomers – can help soften the blow of losing Forbes. Inside play may be a problem, but it was supposed to be this year, and UMass overcame it to reach the NIT finals.

“We need to build on this. It’s not going to be easy,” Ford said. “We’re losing some very good players, but we think we have great players returning, who didn’t get to play a whole lot of minutes this year and some great players sitting out. I think the fans are excited and will come out and support this basketball team next year.”

If you listen to the rumors that Ford will be the new coach at Louisiana State next season (he vehemently denied the rumor after the game, saying he’s had no contact with LSU about the job), he may not coach Lowe, Harris or any other Minuteman next season.

Whoever the coach of UMass may be next season, the program is better off now than it was when he got here three years ago.

UMass fans can keep their heads up for that.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]