ORONO — The University of Maine men’s basketball team has one of its most promising teams in a long time.
For that reason, the Black Bears should be afforded every advantage possible as they try to make a run at the America East championship.
Sunday afternoon, UMaine had the opportunity — sadly, for the only time this season — to enjoy a true home-court advantage.
Coach Ted Woodward’s team played its occasional game in Memorial Gymnasium, posting an impressive 74-54 victory over Norfolk State.
While Black Bear fans didn’t pack “The Pit,” there was an undeniably more lively atmosphere in the aging yet serviceable facility.
The actual number of fans in attendance was significantly below the announced attendance of 1,181 (tickets issued), which would have been within 150 or so of capacity in the gym’s current configuration.
However, the energizing contributions of the UMaine Pep Band and the vocal support of the fans made for a loud, stimulating atmosphere more befitting a Division I basketball program.
As far as aesthetics, the Pit isn’t pretty, but the building has character and is brought to life by even a modest-sized crowd.
Despite the inconvenience of fans having to negotiate the stairs to find a restroom, or the need for caution walking down the steep concrete steps to the old wooden stadium seats, this is the venue that for decades helped give UMaine basketball an edge when its opponents played in Orono.
The Pit is steeped with tradition and history. It is the same gym where UMaine all-time greats such as Rufus Harris, Bob Warner, Roger Lapham, Skip Chappelle and Keith Mahaney thrilled crowds.
The current players know that. They’ve heard the names, seen the old, black and white photographs and even talked with people like booster and former Black Bear Dick “Rooster” Collins, Mahaney and Chappelle, all of whom have remained close to the program.
Memorial Gym and the surrounding facilities help tie the past to the present. It is the hub of activity for not just basketball, but the whole athletic department.
Perhaps most important of all, the basketball players have spent countless hours in the same gym practicing, shooting, bonding. They know every inch of the court upon which they have perspired and bled during their time at UMaine.
Across the parking lot at cold, cavernous Alfond Arena, the Bears are practically playing on a neutral court. Small crowds appear tiny and the acoustics swallow up the cheers of fans spread throughout the building.
Sure, the court is still 94 feet long and the baskets are 10 feet high, but there’s no real comfort zone for the players and no ambiance for the fans.
UMaine’s opponents are bound to hate the bandbox feel of the Pit, where fans are right on top of the court, the raucous band blares incessantly and the bounces and rolls probably won’t seem too friendly on baskets that hang from the ceiling.
Former Boston University coach Dennis Wolff complained about playing there in 2006 — even after his team won the game.
There are no fancy video scoreboards to play the assortment of promotional spots and advertisements, but throw up a few signs in the Pit and read the ad scripts and little would be lost.
Advertisers would rather be associated with a winner and potential champion if it means sacrificing a few advertising bells and whistles.
Ironically, not long after UMaine dispatched Norfolk State on Sunday, a group of UMaine staffers and supporters gathered in the UMaine Sports Hall of Fame (the main lobby of Memorial Gym) and watched a brief presentation from the architectural firm that is handling the plans for the planned renovation of the facility.
The proposed project, which is expected to cost approximately $14 million, is still two or three years and some $4 million from becoming a reality.
UMaine continues to search for financial backers who, after seeing a game in the Pit, would undoubtedly realize the need for an upgrade and the impact a shiny, revamped facility would have not only on UMaine basketball but on the athletic department and the campus as a whole.
The folks at UMaine, especially the student-athletes, deserve a first-class facility — one that will house much more than a new gym — that they can pridefully call home.
In the meantime, the Bears should play home games in the Pit, while the Maine women’s basketball team, which has drawn better crowds, might be better served to stay at Alfond.
Yes, there are challenges to playing in Memorial Gym. I’m sure I don’t know the half of it (although using the large main scoreboard would be a help).
Yet speaking as a fan of college basketball, it’s worth a few small inconveniences to able to work in a more lively game setting.
And with all due respect to the hardworking members of the UMaine athletic department, who I’m sure have unseen challenges in hosting games at Memorial Gym, it seems worth whatever aggravation might ensue.
If UMaine started selling out men’s games at the Pit and fans weren’t able to get in, that would be a compelling reason to return to Alfond Arena.
Otherwise, it’s time to give the Black Bears a fighting chance to maximize their potential. Let ’em play the rest of their home games at Memorial Gym and restore the pivotal home-court advantage.