ORONO — The University of Maine is among the Division I men’s basketball programs that have never qualified for the NCAA tournament.
The Black Bears hope to scratch their name from that list and add it to the roster of America East champions this season.
With a nucleus that features four returning starters, led by All-America East first-team selection Gerald McLemore, coach Ted Woodward’s team is setting its sights high.
“The thing that we went into this year talking about is trying to take it to the next level,” said the Bears’ seventh-year head coach.
UMaine got America East’s attention last season going 19-11, including 11-5 in conference play. The Bears’ run ended abruptly in the America East quarterfinals.
The Bears were picked by AE coaches to finish third this season.
“We’re looking forward to going out and proving to everybody that’s where we belong, if not first,” said senior Sean McNally of Gardiner.
One area of focus for UMaine is maintaining its defensive presence. The Bears ranked first in the league and 19th in the nation last winter, holding opponents to .395 field-goal shooting. They also led America East and were 39th in Division I, allowing 62.1 points per game.
UMaine also committing only 15.7 fouls per contest, 16th in the country.
The Bears must replace graduated point guard Junior Bernal, an experienced leader who was a member of the AE All-Defensive Team.
Competing to fill Bernal’s shoes are 5-foot-9 junior Andrew Rogers and junior Raheem “Radio” Singleton, a 6-foot junior transfer from Monroe Community College in New York.
Rogers is quick and has 3-point range, but will be counted on to run the offense, minimize turnovers and play gritty defense.
“He’s smart, very savvy, has a very high assist-to-turnover ratio,” Woodward said. “He came back this summer more confident, strong.”
Singleton is a bigger, stronger presence who can both attack the basket off the dribble and score from the perimeter.
“He’s a good shooter and he heats it up on the defensive end,” Woodward said. “We expect great things from him throughout the course of the season.”
UMaine’s other points of emphasis for 2010-11 include rebounding, minimizing turnovers and shooting for a better percentage, particularly finishing around the basket.
The Bears were fifth in America East rebounding margin (0.7), eighth in turnovers (14.4) and seventh in field-goal percentage (.407). However, UMaine led the league with 13.2 assists per outing.
“The biggest thing we’ve been focusing on is our rebounding and our turnovers and just hoping that we can get a few more quality possessions,” he said.
The Bears’ veterans are led by junior shooting guard McLemore, who led the team with 14.6 points per game and ranked second in Division I with 3.4 3-pointers per contest, shooting 40 percent.
“He’s a guy that has a great understanding of the game, plays extremely hard,” said Woodward, who pointed to McLemore’s improvement on defense. “He’s the last one in the gym every night.”
Senior guard Terrance Mitchell (9.9 ppg, 1.9 assists, .770 free throw percentage) will be a key contributor on the wing when he returns from a broken left index finger that required surgery.
“He is a shut-down defender,” Woodward said. “He can shoot it and he has the ability to drive and get to the free-throw line.”
UMaine’s frontcourt is manned by a trio of 6-7 returning starters in seniors McNally and Troy Barnies of Auburn and sophomore Murphy Burnatowski.
McNally, an All-AE third-team pick last season (10.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg), anchors the middle with his physical play.
“He’s completely unselfish in his game. He knows how to pass, get guys free with a screen,” Woodward said. “He’s a guy that makes a lot work for us.”
Flanking McNally is the agile Barnies, who contributed 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last winter while shooting 47 percent from the floor.
“He’s very active around the basket. His footwork in the low post is the best on our team,” Woodward said.
Burnatowski (6.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg), a 6-6 forward, was an America East All-Rookie choice who combines offensive potential and defensive skills.
“Murphy Burnatowski, at some point, has the opportunity to be the best defensive player in our league,” Woodward said. “He has a great personality along with athleticism to handle that role.”
The Bears feature plenty of size and depth coming off the bench, led by 6-6 senior swing player Malachi Peay, who likely will see more time with Mitchell on the mend.
“He can score with his back to the basket, take people one-on-one,” Woodward said. “He understands how to get teammates free off the dribble.”
Freshman forward Alasdair Fraser of Scotland (6-7) has demonstrated he might be able to contribute right away.
“He has a big body, he takes up a lot of space, and he’s able to catch and finish at the basket,” Woodward said. “He’s always been a high-percentage field-goal shooter.”
Lanky 6-9 sophomore center Mike Allison will be called upon to rebound and alter shots, while juniors Svetoslav Chetinov (6-9) and Travon Wilcher (6-7) are capable backups. Sophomore Jon McAllian of Bangor comes off the bench at shooting guard.
Bolstered by their five-game exhibition tour in Canada during August, believe their chemistry will be outstanding.
“Everyone’s coming back and they know the offense and we know one another, so we feel confident coming into this year,” McLemore said.