University of Maine men’s basketball coach Ted Woodward felt a bit self conscious while making his way through airport terminals and security checkpoints on the way back home from Kennesaw, Ga., Sunday.
Woodward was toting a 6-foot-tall, gleaming piece of luggage that even Samsonite hasn’t designed a suitcase for.
“It was kind of funny bringing it through the airport,” Woodward said. “It’s bigger than some of our guys.”
Not that Woodward would want to hide it anyway. The 100 Club Classic trophy represents the first tournament title won by the Black Bears in Woodward’s five-year tenure as head coach.
The Bears are off to a 2-0 start, and the last time that happened, John Giannini was head coach, Andy Bedard and Allen Ledbetter were team captains, and none of the current players on the roster was even a teenager.
The Black Bears’ 1998-99 team started off 5-0 en route to a 19-9 season which ended with a conference tournament semifinal loss to top-seeded Delaware. The 2008-09 edition hopes to advance at least as far as in the postseason as that team did, but Woodward isn’t about to let anyone get too far ahead of themselves.
“It’s one weekend. We played very good basketball, executed good fundamentals, showed good leadership, and had a good couple of games back to back,” Woodward said. “But we’ve got a long way to go and a lot of growing to do still.”
Despite having only two seniors to go with six freshmen and three sophomores, the team has shown some big growth spurts and is deceptively experienced. Six players return with significant varsity minutes to their credit.
“We don’t have a lot of seniors, but we do have a good core of leaders to build on,” Woodward explained.
Those guys include 100 Club Classic MVP Mark Socoby. The guard from Houlton scored 16 points in each game against Northern Illinois and host Kennesaw State.
“Any time you can win your first two games, it’s going to help you and I think we’re a little more focused this year,” Socoby said. “I think it just goes with maturity. We’ve grown up a lot since last year and I think that’s what you’re seeing on the court.”
Socoby is backed up by veterans like fellow junior guard Junior Bernal and senior guard Kaimondre Owes.
The more experienced, confident and comfortable Bears are already doing things differently than last season’s injury-, error- and inconsistency-plagued squad.
“I’m pleased we’ve been able to carry over a lot of positive things we’ve seen in practice into game conditions,” said Woodward, whose Bears followed up several very solid practices with error-plagued games last season. “We’ve had erent guys stepping up to help us and we’ve taken leads and held them in the second half.
“That’s a big thing because it shows you maturity.”
Despite being sophomores, forwards Sean McNally of Gardiner and Troy Barnies of Auburn, and guard Malachi Peay are taking more proactive roles.
“One year made all the difference for me,” said Barnies. “I feel so much better.”
The 6-foot-7, 205-pound Barnies, who missed four weeks to injury early last season, added 15 pounds and more stamina in the offseason and it has shown as he’s slid comfortably into the power forward spot.
“I feel like I can handle being guarded by big guys and mix it up underneath,” Barnies said. “I may have sacrificed some of my speed, but for my position, I’ll still have an advantage with my quickness and late in the game, I feel a lot better.”
McNally also bulked up without sacrificing quickness and has picked up where he left off after a solid freshman season.
“They’re both tough. We love Troy’s hustle, but he’s much more in control on the court,” Woodward said. “We knew what his natural position was going to be after he added the weight and muscle to be a legitimate power forward.”
Among the new faces, freshman point guard Gerald McLemore, who graduated early and joined the team last January to practice and train, has made an immediate impact.
“He’s a very talented guard with a great basketball IQ. He added 40 pounds on his bench press and on his 4 inches vertical leap in the offseason,” Woodward said. “He does a great job pressuring the ball and deflecting passes. He has a beautiful 3-point shot and is fearless on the court defensively.”
Also, freshmen like 6-9 center-forward Svetoslav Chetinov and guards Doran Mitchell and Andrew Rogers have provided productive minutes off the bench.