The transformation of the University of Maine men’s basketball program has begun.
After a two-year tailspin, there are plenty of reasons to get out and watch the Black Bears.
UMaine (4-9) heads into Wednesday night’s America East opener against Vermont at the Cross Insurance Center riding a two-game winning streak. Coach Bob Walsh’s Black Bears, who won only three games last winter, appear poised to continue their development during conference play.
Not unlike the new-look Boston Celtics, whose savvy coach and youthful talent have breathed new life into the franchise, Walsh has assembled players who fit his free-flowing basketball philosophy and play together.
The Black Bears are entertaining. Walsh and his staff espouse an aggressive defensive mentality, one that usually includes plenty of full-court pressure.
That helps UMaine generate a faster pace as opponents try to negotiate the press and wind up shooting more quickly.
Walsh rewards players for their defensive intensity and effort by allowing them considerable latitude on offense. As a result, the Black Bears are constantly on the attack amidst exciting, end-to-end play that features lots of 3-pointers and a fair number of dunks.
UMaine is averaging 74.8 points per game, which ranks second only to Stony Brook (77.4 ppg) in America East. The Bears are built around a corps of six guards, headed by sophomores Kevin Little and Aaron Calixte, along with freshman Lavar Harewood, junior Troy Reid-Knight, senior Shaun Lawton and walk-on freshman Ryan Bernstein.
The speedy Little (14.5 ppg) is fearless. He has knocked down 32 3-pointers, but is confident enough to drive to the basket. He has dished out a team-best 2.8 assists per contest and leads UMaine with 17 steals.
Calixte is a bit more controlled, but is capable of scoring (8.2 ppg) from the perimeter. He is the best free-throw shooter (.792) on a team that is making only 62 percent.
At 6-foot-3, Harewood (7.1 ppg) is a bigger guard who provides a physical presence on defense and on the boards. He has emerged as UMaine’s leading 3-point threat, hitting 69 percent.
Reid-Knight (4.5 ppg) is a tenacious defender who is not afraid to take a charge, but he’s also capable of scoring from long range. Veteran Lawton (4.5 ppg) is a quick defender with a knack for making steals who is adept at initiating the transition attack.
Bernstein provides a heady floor leader on offense and is a grinder on defense with unrelenting intensity.
The Black Bears’ contingent of wings and post players gives them good versatility. Senior Till Gloger (8.7 ppg) is a scoring machine within 15 feet, while rangy freshman Devine Eke (10.5 ppg, team-high 7.6 rebounds per game) is a dynamic leaper who can impact the game at both ends of the floor.
Classmate Issac Vann, another forward who plays above the rim, has been sidelined for nine games with an ankle injury. He led the team in scoring (15.8 ppg) and rebounding (6.5 rpg) before he was hurt.
Junior Garet Beal of Beals Island (5.4 ppg) is a rugged wing capable of matching up with bigger opponents on defense and freshman Ilija Stojiljkovic is a lanky wing with a good shooting touch (2.7 ppg) and some rebounding prowess (3.4 rpg).
Redshirt sophomore Mark Pirovic, who is coming off a foot ailment, gives the Bears another long defender with nice rebounding instincts (4.0 rpg).
UMaine is able to utilize considerable depth and mix and match its personnel to keep players fresh. Even with frequent substitutions, the Bears have been able to maintain cohesiveness while remaining unselfish.
The most endearing aspect of this group is its high level of camaraderie. Unlike a couple of years ago, there is plenty of energy on the bench, where players are quick to celebrate outstanding plays.
While this ballclub likely won’t be making a run at the conference title this winter, especially given its defensive deficicencies (the Bears are allowing 86 ppg on 47 percent shooting), it is nonetheless apparent that Walsh has the program moving forward.
Not only does UMaine have better athletes, it is demonstrating more grit and determination, all the while showing off the kind of chemistry of which winners are made.
Eastern Maine basketball fans should check out this team. It might take a little time, but don’t be surprised when the Black Bears are again a legitimate force in America East.