ORONO, Maine — The last time the University of Maine men’s basketball team opened a season with an 8-5 record, it advanced to the conference final six years ago.
Yes, it’s early; no, they have yet to play an America East Conference foe; and no, a three-game win streak and a victory over an Atlantic Coast Conference team does not a season make.
But it is reason for excitement on the Orono campus.
The Black Bears are on a high, confidence-wise, that maybe hasn’t been felt for two seasons due to comeback wins, wins pulled out in the waning minutes and seconds, and wins against solid programs like Boston College, Princeton and Columbia.
But it’s all for naught if the Bears can’t maintain this momentum into the conference portion of the schedule and they’ll get a big test right away with defending regular-season champ Vermont at Alfond Arena in Orono tonight at 7.
“This [win vs. Princeton] was a big game for us to end our non-conference schedule and head into a game against Vermont,” said junior forward Sean McNally. “Just to keep that momentum going and keep our confidence at a higher level, this is one of the biggest games we’ve had in a month and a half. I think we’ll play real well Thursday.”
They’ll have to as the 10-5 Catamounts are no stranger to taking down good teams.
But this isn’t shaping up as your typical Maine men’s team either. The games the Bears were losing the last two years — either by letting leads get away late, missing free throws, defensive mistakes, making turnovers, or all four — are the games they are winning precisely because they’re executing all or some of those key areas.
Why the turnaround?
“I believe having one more year together has really helped our trust and confidence in each other to make one more pass, knock down a 3-pointer, whatever it may be,” said sophomore guard Gerald McLemore, the team’s leading scorer (15.4 points per game).
McNally agrees, but says there is more to it.
“Last year I think we kind of relied on one or two guys to kind of carry the team and this year we don’t have to rely on that,” said the Gardiner native. “We’re eight or nine guys deep and any one of them can be the top scorer night to night.”
Ask head coach Ted Woodward what the difference is and he points primarily to one thing that has a direct bearing on those key areas and others.
“This year, we knew from last spring that the leadership was what we recruited,” Woodward explained. “We didn’t just recruit players, we recruited leadership with our junior players.
“This is a group we planned on going with when they were young a couple years ago and now they’re 21, have played a lot of basketball and they’re getting better and more mature at it while understanding each other better.”
Woodward said his team’s maturation process wasn’t smooth, but necessary.
“We had some young guys who are now leaders for us after they were struggling a couple years ago,” he said. “Last year we had some really good moments and good things that happened, but the league was stacked and we struggled in the second half.”
This year’s juniors like McNally, fellow Mainer Troy Barnies, a forward from Auburn, and junior college signee Terrance Mitchell; lone senior Junior Bernal; McLemore and true freshmen like Murphy Burnatowski and Mike Allison are starting to come of age.
“We’ve got a ways to go, but we have been really good at taking things a game at a time and a day at a time,” said Woodward.