ALBANY, N.Y. — When Ted Woodward was asked to assess his University of Maine men’s basketball team this past preseason, he said he expected the squad to go through some growing pains.
He didn’t expect those pains would be ongoing throughout the season.
As evidenced in the team’s season ending loss to Hartford in the America East conference’s preliminary or “play-in” game Friday night, those pains afflicted the Black Bears right through the final game.
“We knew this would be a transition year with ups and downs,” Woodward said. “We’ve never been a team to look at the next game, and I don’t think this team will dwell on our last one.
“I know why we brought these guys in and where we’re going. We’ve always had our focus on what’s coming up this year and the year after.”
This season ended with a 9-21 record (4-13 in league play) and 10 losses in the last 11 games, but Woodward still finds plenty of reason for optimism.
“We knew our stretch run was going to be difficult and we wanted to win those games, but our guys recognize how close they are, I think they know what they need to do next, and I think they can’t wait,” Woodward said. “That’s why I’m excited about this group.”
Well, that and some statistical information.
“We finished in the top four in every offensive category the league behind the top three teams in the league,” Woodward explained. “And this is the leading scoring-rebounding-assist group of freshmen and sophomores in the league.
“We have tons of points, rebounds and assists coming back, and we have a corps of leaders continuing to grow up with juniors, sophomores and even some of our freshmen.”
The Black Bears started off 3-0 for the first time in 10 years, increased their scoring by almost four points per game, decreased turnovers, and upped their assists.
Still, wins were hard to come by with non-conference games against top-10 Oklahoma, top-25 Boston College, Big East power Providence College, and 2008 NCAA Tournament participant South Alabama.
“Our schedule strength was ranked 166th nationally and maybe that was a little bit much for the age of the team we had,” Woodward said. “I believe it’s the hardest schedule strength we’ve had overall.”
Things weren’t much easier in America East, which finished the regular season ranked 16th out of 31 NCAA Division I conferences in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) — up 11 spots from last season.
“That’s not to be used as an excuse since things aren’t going to be easier,” Woodward said. “I think it really comes down to two things: locking teams down defensively and some guys working on progressing to that next level. It’s really about finding those little ways to win, having those guys make a little extra push to make plays, and having a number of guys anxious to be that guy.”
Top candidates for “that guy” are sophomore forward Sean McNally of Gardiner, freshman guard Gerald McLemore, sophomore forward Troy Barnies of Auburn and junior guard Mark Socoby of Houlton.
That quartet is part of the team’s core — many of which is home-grown — of traditional, four-year student-athletes that was assembled with an eye toward the future.
“If you look at the success Vermont had in the early 2000’s, that’s the same thing. I believe we could have that same kind of situation with a good corps of kids coming from the state,” said Woodward. “UMBC was eighth or ninth [current senior] Jay Greene’s freshman year, when [Brian] Hodges was a sophomore. Two years later they won the league.
“Just like Vermont, they had the right character guys, and that’s what we have the potential to do. It’s what this team was built and designed for.”
The numbers show the long-range strategy is succeeding despite the losses.
McLemore averaged 14.0 points, 2.6 rebounds over the last eight games after 12.1 and 2.5, respectively. Over the same time span, McNally went from 9.6 points to 11.4, 7.4 rebounds to 7.9, and 1.4 blocks to 2.1; Barnies went from 7.5 to 9.9 points and 5.0 rebounds to 5.1; and freshman guard Andrew Rogers went from 1.7 points to 2.5 and 1.0 rebounds to 1.4; and senior guard Kaimondre Owes went from 8.5 points to 10.3 and 2.0-rebounds to 2.7.
Owes is one of three seniors graduating, but the other two (Jason Hight of Westbrook and Philippe Tchekane Bofia) missed the entire season to injuries and the Bears will return 11 of 12 players.
And despite disappointing losses in the league’s prelim game the last two years, Woodward will be back for his sixth season as head coach.
“Obviously it’s disappointing to be in the play-in game again, and I know the guys and Ted are disappointed. I guess I look at where the program is at and I see a lot of upside,” said Maine athletic director Blake James.
Woodward just finished the first season in a four-year contract renewal.
“We evaluate the coaches every year and Ted and I will talk the next couple weeks about this year,” James explained. “There’s pressure on him and no one’s putting more pressure on Ted than Ted is. Right now we’ve made a commitment to him for four years and my feeling is we’re going to honor his contract.”
Woodward knows Maine fans are hungry for a return to the days when the Bears advanced at least as far as the AE semifinals five times in six years (1998-99 to 2003-04).
“We all recognize the fact we are right there. We had our chances in some games,” said Woodward. “We won’t be nearly as young as we were, but we’ll still only have two seniors and three sophomores, which is great.
“There’s no question these next two years are key for us.”