I am among those who have questioned the University of Maine men’s basketball team in terms of its exhibition schedule.
The Black Bears have for several years played the likes of Husson University, the University of Maine-Machias, UMaine-Fort Kent, the University of Southern Maine and Fisher College.
The easy answer is, out-of-state teams don’t want to drive all the way to Orono for a game that doesn’t even count. From that perspective, UMaine has to take any home games that it can get.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s 80-75 setback to UMFK at The Pit in Orono, it appears as though the Black Bears may not be ready to take on Division I competition at the moment.
One is right to assume that UMaine should vanquish virtually any exhibition opponents who participate below the Division II level or those not affiliated with the NCAA.
With no disrespect intended for coach Tom Bird’s UMFK Bengals, who compete in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association, the program does include players who receive some athletic scholarship money.
That said, UMaine shouldn’t be losing to UMFK.
It was two years ago, during coach Bob Walsh’s first season as UMaine’s head coach, that the Black Bears dropped a 78-73 decision to Division III USM at Hill Gymnasium in Gorham.
That game was an unfortunate harbinger of things to come for UMaine, which then suffered through a 3-27 season — the worst in program history.
The reality is, Walsh’s team — as it is presently constituted — can’t afford to take any opponent for granted.
And although the outcome against UMFK is unexpected given that the Black Bears have 14 Division I players on scholarship, there is reason to expect this year’s team is destined for more growing pains.
UMaine lost six of its top eight scorers from last season’s ballclub, including transfers Issac Vann, Kevin Little, Devine Eke and Lavar Harewood, along with outgoing seniors Till Gloger and Shaun Lawton. That team went 8-22 and lost its last nine games.
Walsh is again trying to rebuild a guard-dominated Black Bears roster with only a handful of veterans, including junior guard Aaron Calixte, senior guard Troy Reid-Knight, junior wing Marko Pirovic and senior swingman Garet Beals of Beals Island.
All but Calixte have been plagued by injuries during their careers.
Transfer Wesley Myers, several newcomers and a few other young players will try to fast-forward their development in the hope of helping UMaine re-establish itself as a consistently competitive team in America East.
But Walsh and his staff again have their work cut out for them in that regard, especially if Saturday’s result is any indication. The Black Bears open their 2016-2017 season on Friday at Virginia Tech, an Atlantic Coast Conference program that won 20 games last season.
Hopefully, UMaine can dig down deep and play closer to its collective capability against the Hokies. There’s nowhere to go but up at this point.