UMass hosts Saint Louis as Travis Ford returns to Mullins Center

  • Saint Louis head coach Travis Ford is seen on the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Ball State Friday, Nov. 11, 2016, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) AP

  • UMass head coach Matt McCall motions to his players during the first half of their 101-76 win over Niagara at the Mullins Center in Amherst on Nov. 19, 2017. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

For The Recorder
Friday, January 19, 2018

AMHERST — As Matt McCall was doing his due diligence to learn about UMass during his candidacy for the head coaching job, he called former Minuteman coach Travis Ford.

The two were already friends stemming from their mutual connection to Billy Donovan, who’d been an assistant coach at Kentucky when Ford played there and the head coach at Florida when McCall was an assistant coach there.

McCall and Ford will be on opposite sides of the chessboard today at 2 p.m. when Ford’s Saint Louis Billikens play at UMass.

“I talked to him a lot when he got the job about Amherst.He’s coming in in kind of the same situation as me. His wife is from the area (Long Island) to an extent, but both of us were coming from the South,” Ford said. “I thought he was a great hire. He’ll build something really special. He’s a great young coach, really eager. He’s got a good demeanor for it and he’s learned from the best.”

McCall, who has led UMass to a 10-9 (3-3 Atlantic 10) start, returned the praise.

“He was very gracious to me when I got the job here. He told me how special a place this is. He’s been great to me and was really excited and happy for me when I got the job here,” McCall said. “Our trajectory to this level is very similar. The difference is I was an assistant coach and I wasn’t one of the greatest players ever at the University of Kentucky.”

Ford, as McCall referenced, was never an assistant coach. He started his career as an NAIA head coach at Campbellsville then spent five years at Eastern Kentucky before piloting the Minutemen from 2005 to 2008. He lead UMass to the NIT championship game in 2008 before leaving for Oklahoma State. He admitted it’ll feel unusual coaching from the Mullins Center’s visitor’s bench

“It will be a little odd. There’s no denying that. I can’t say it won’t be,” Ford said. “When the game starts your mind is so focused. But it was even a little weird last year even though it wasn’t in Amherst.”

Many UMass fans hold a grudge toward Ford for his abrupt departure for Oklahoma State, but the feeling isn’t mutual.

“I have nothing but good memories. I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of people I built relationships with when I was there,” Ford said.

He will be trying to frustrate UMass a little more, however. The Billikens are 9-10 overall, and 2-4 in the Atlantic 10, but a closer look reveals Saint Louis may be moving closer to clicking. Not only did SLU cool off a Duquesne team that’s been the surprise of the conference Wednesday, but the Billikens hung with Rhode Island and fell just short at Davidson.

The Billikens were thought to be a dark horse contender, but three players who were expected to contribute were suspended before the season following accusations of sexual assault.

Freshman guard Jordan Goodwin is a likely candidate for all-rookie status. He leads Saint Louis in rebounds (7.3 per game), assists (4.2) and steals (2.2), and is third in scoring (10.9). Javon Bess leads the team in scoring at 13.0 per game.

NOTES — Former UMass national player of the year Marcus Camby will highlight a large group of former players attending the game. Coincidentally included in that group is former Minuteman Dante Milligan, a graduate assistant on Ford’s staff.