WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — Eighth place, as in number eight out of nine teams.
That’s what the coaches in America East expected, that’s what Sporting News projected, and that’s what the players and coaches on the University of Maine men’s basketball team rejected.
“I don’t really look at that stuff,” junior forward Sean McNally said back in early November. “I know what we’ve got in here and on our team and that’s what we’ll go with. I think we can surprise some teams.”
That’s exactly what the Black Bears have done while going 19-10 in the regular season, compiling an 11-5 conference mark, and entering the America East tournament as the No. 3 seed.
“I think they’re built to be a successful tournament team,” said Albany coach Will Brown. “They’ve got great size and I think that’s a benefit to them, especially come tournament time where referees let you play more.
“If they can make games physical and grind them out, they can have success and I’m just glad they’re on the other side of our tournament bracket.”
The Bears will start play on their side of the bracket tonight when they take on No. 6 New Hampshire at 8:15 p.m. here on the Chase Arena court.
Ted Woodward’s men haven’t just surprised fellow AE head coaches, they’ve impressed them with their style of play.
“I enjoy watching them play because they play so well together,” said Hartford coach Dan Leibovitz. “There are guys who really accept their roles. It’s really good, fundamental basketball.”
University of Maryland Baltimore County coach Randy Monroe agrees, saying the Bears play an old school brand of ball he particularly appreciates.
“Maine does a phenomenal job of moving the ball around and they have guys who play the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” Monroe said. “I like watching their big guys play.”
Sophomore guard Gerald McLemore leads the Bears in scoring with 14.9 points per game and leads the nation in 3-pointers with 100 (while shooting 40.2 percent from 3-point range). He is only the third player in league history to hit 100 or more in a season (Vermont’s T.J. Sorrentine had 116 in 2004-05 and Joe Zeglinski had 103 in 2007-08).
As deadly as McLemore can be, he’s not the only offensive concern for opponents.
McNally (10.1 ppg, 7.3 rebounds) can be a force in the paint while 6-3 guard Terrance Mitchell has also become a versatile scorer and a deadly shooter. Junior Bernal is adept at finding gaps and scoring off penetration and freshman forward Murphy Burnatowski recently scored a career-high 20 points. Troy Barnies of Auburn has been a double-digit scorer both as a starter and a reserve.
“They have two deadeye shooters and they have a senior point guard who knows his role and his limitations. Everybody in the gym knows he’s not a great shooter, but he finds ways to hurt you with penetrating and posting,” said Hartford coach Dan Leibovitz of McLemore, Mitchell and Bernal. “And you have Barnies and Burnatowski who know their roles as screeners and play off one of the most capable low post scorers in our conference [McNally].
“There’s not a lot more you can ask for.”
Well, Maine fans would like to see a couple of wins or more in the tournament.
“Since we came here, that’s been our big goal,” said Barnies. “We want to be part of something special and win a title here.”
If Maine beats UNH, the Bears advance to a 7:30 p.m. Sunday semifinal against the winner of the Vermont-UMBC quarterfinal. If Maine is in the semifinal, then Bangor television station WABI-DT2 (“The CW”) will air the game.