The Blip Gets Bigger

By David Scott - January 03, 2008

AMHERST, Mass. -- Lots of teams are "off the radar" at this juncture of the season. Non-conference play is never the end-all, be-all and your 10-2 team on January 1 is your 21-win, bubble team come March 1. So it made sense to pay attention to the Atlantic 10-Conference USA clash that took place Tuesday night under the snow-covered green roof of the once-hoppin' Mullins Center.

What unfolded between host UMass and first-time guest Houston was a 95-89 Minuteman win that had equal glimpses of the Phoenix Suns and a possible Phoenix rising in Travis Ford's 11-2 club.

"I told everyone this was going to be the kind of game it was," said Ford, the UMass head man who has a team built for speed. "You knew this was going to happen. I even said it after our last game when I was begging people to come out [to this game]. I said, 'This is going to be an exciting game, there's no way around it.' It was going to happen.'"

Did it ever.

If the Minutemen continue to play with the tenacity of their second half incarnation on Tuesday, what will be happening is the begging of Ford for something: Tickets to games.

"You always want more [fans], there's no question," said Ford whose less-than-half-full house for his program's marquee non-conference home game was affected by a combination of student break, temperatures in the teens and a mostly apathetic UMass fan base. "Selfishly, yeah we want more fans to support this team beacuse I think our fans would love it."

Maybe they would, but for now Ford will have to settle for his players loving it. Oh, and the opposing coach, as well.

"I love the way Travis coaches, he's one of my favorite young coaches to watch," said Houston's 62-year-old coach of the 38-year-old Ford. "And if the fans don't catch on here and supprt this, you're not going to find more fun basketball to watch, than that style. It's the same as Rick Pitino in his 'younger' years. You know, full court, in your face, take this, take that. . . I think very highly of Travis and I am happy for him that he's got this thing turned around. It's a great arena and I think the way Travis is playing, his style of play is very attractive."

Just ask his players.

"It's a fun style to play," said the rapidly developing sophomore guard Ricky Harris. "Fast paced, up and down. . . Look at me - I'm an undersized wing player/two guard [6-foot-2, 185 pounds], that's the only way. Run and gun. Shoot."

"It fits me perfect," said the team's leading scorer, Gary Forbes, who had 19 points, four rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal in 35 minutes. "Use my speed, get up and down, have fun. Play just like the Phoenix Suns, you know? We have a lot of fun out there."

That wasn't quite the case in the first half when UMass hit just 3 of its 15 attempts from 3-point land and watched the Cougars build a 13-point lead by shooting 53 percent from the field.

"We're never worried about offense; we're always going to get our shots," said Forbes. "Tonight you had me, Ricky (16 points), Etienne [Brower, 18 points] and Chris [Lowe, 18 points] all shooting well."

It's a confidence that appears to be built out of comfort with the fact that Ford very rarely punishes wayward offense.

"The way our team plays, our style of play -- anyone can score," said Forbes. "We're going to get a lot of shots up we're never worried about how many shots we'll get -- we're all going to get our shots. We aren't worried about being pulled on offense. We didn't have many threes in the first half and we just came out in the second half and brought it to the basket."

"[Ford] doesn't yank anybody for offense," Lowe said. "Unless it's a horrible, horrible shot AND you're not playing defense. That's the one thing. But he tells us to 'shoot shots.' He knows the way that we play, we're going to get up a lot of shots."

In fact, each of the Ford's Big Four hoisted 10 or more shots, while the team as a whole got off 67 shots (six over its season pace of 61 FGAs/game). Each averages between eight and 13 shots per game. On Tuesday, UMass freshman Matt Glass played just seven minutes in the first half and managed to launch five shot attempts, all but one from 3-point land (hitting two). More shots, less complaining. In other words, everyone is happy.

"You should worry about the defensive end more than the offensive end," Harris said. "There's no pressure on the offensive end. You just play, you just play ball. On the defensive end? You get beat middle, your man rebounds over you. . . then you're looking at the scorer's table to [see who's coming in for you]."

"We talk a lot about that stuff with them," said Ford as he accepted hugs, handshakes and congratulations in the mostly silent post-game bowels of the Mullins Center. "I dont care what you're doing on offense. Make good decisions, don't turn it over, let's get a shot, some type of shot."

And then play defense like you mean it. It does sound a bit like Pitino's youthful ways, now doesn't it.

"Yeah, a little bit. You'd be surprised how much he let us play," said Ford. "He got into us more about shot selection, I think."

Ford either has more patience or less smarts than his mentor, but either way, the Runnin' For 40 Minutemen are knocking louder and louder on the Top 25's door jamb.

"They have a lot of pieces," said Penders. "They have a very nice ball club. I like their team a lot. This team is for real -- they're a very good basketball team."

Plaudits aside, Forbes, the senior captain, is content being "on-the-cusp."

"We just to want to stay under the radar and keep winning games," he said. "People didn't even think we were going to do this well. Some polls had us picked 13th and we keep that in the back of our heads every time we go out there and play. This was a big game for us and we knew what was at stake. Definitely, we do want to crack the Top 25. But our main goal is to win as many games as possible. We see the big picture and we're trying to make it to the NCAA tournament. These are the type of games you have to win to make it, or to make a statement."

"This would have been a great one [to win]," Penders said. "But by no means do I feel like this was a game we absolutely had to have."

Maybe it wasn't on Tuesday night. But it could be the one that UMass needed come Selection Sunday.

Posted by David Scott at 01:09 AM on January 03, 2008

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