It has been a tumultuous few months for the University of Maine men’s basketball team, which experienced an unexpected exodus of players since the end of the 2015-2016 season.
Granted, there have been some hard times for coach Bob Walsh’s Black Bears. They went 8-22 last season after posting a program-worst 3-27 mark during 2014-2015.
Last winter, UMaine demonstrated progress, but clearly was still in the middle of a rebuild with numerous underclassmen playing significant roles.
Walsh has proven himself a taskmaster, forcing his players to dig deep and give more while expecting relentless effort can result in a dramatic upturn in success. No question, he’s tough.
Still, by all accounts the players like and respect Walsh. Most of them received considerable playing time under his hard-pressing, fast-tempo system.
Yet five players he and his staff recruited in the last two years have bolted.
There seemed to be two schools of thought for the departures — and I’m paraphrasing.
First, “if I’m good at UMaine, what’s to stop me from taking my game up a notch, especially if I can do so at a school that already has a winning tradition.”
The other was more personal. “I’m not a huge fan of Orono and our team is struggling, so maybe I can play somewhere else, preferably closer to home, and win more.”
The transfers started in March with Issac Vann, whose outstanding play as a freshman convinced him, and others around him, that he could compete at a higher level.
He wound up committing to Virginia Commonwealth of the Atlantic 10 Conference, evidence that perhaps he really is capable of bigger and better things.
Unfortunately for Walsh, that instant upgrade might have got other Black Bears thinking about whether they could pursue playing somewhere with perhaps more allure than the America East Conference.
Next came freshman guard Levar Harewood, then sophomore guard Kevin Little and freshman forward Devine Eke. Freshman walk-on Walter King, who had left school in December, also made his departure permanent.
The fact that Vann landed at an A-10 school is impressive. He demonstrated the ability to be a difference-maker at UMaine, although his impact at VCU may not be quite as great.
Little also pulled off quite a coup for a “gunner” who has never seen a shot that isn’t worth taking. The offensive-minded guard is headed west, where he will play at Colorado State.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Rams, who compete in the Mountain West Conference, aren’t going to give Little the kind of free rein he had at UMaine.
Nonetheless, it is a decidedly stiffer challenge for him at that level of Division I.
Eke, a skinny post player who showed some promise with his energy as a defender and rebounder, took what might be considered a more lateral step.
He is headed to Rider of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which went 13-20 last season. However, the New Jersey native will be only 35 miles from home playing for the Broncs.
Harewood, who showed some good flashes with the Black Bears but wound up as a solid backup guard, is taking a step “back” to eventually move forward. He is transferring to Cloud County Community College in Kansas for the next phase of his education/career.
King, whom Walsh indicated left UMaine to take care of a personal situation, has resurfaced with a Division II program, the New York Institute of Technology. It is located in his home state.
The unfortunate aspect of the whole transfer situation is, Walsh and his staff brought in some good recruits. But they wound up having them for only one or two seasons.
In particular, the moves of Vann and Little speak to the caliber of the players. Others like Eke and Harewood, and even King, are guys who need some seasoning before they’re going to have a significant impact at the Division I level.
With the NCAA’s transfer rules as liberal as they are, there are no guarantees about how long a player is going to stay at UMaine — or any school. Outstanding performance is likely to generate interest from above the mid-major level.
There is no way to stop that trend completely as egos often will trump the educational experience and relationships with teammates and coaches.
The best way for UMaine to nip transfers in the bud is to win and win often. Success cements the bonds of camaraderie and friendship.
This year’s defectors have disrupted that process for the Black Bears, but have also steeled the resolve of those who remain.
This story was corrected to reflect that the New York Institute of Technology sponsors a Division II basketball program.