Time is right to follow Maine men’s tourney quest

Posted Jan. 20, 2011, at 5:24 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 20, 2011, at 7:26 p.m.
Mark Collier

After battling black ice and blowing snow several nights a week during the winter to follow the schoolboy basketball scene, usually the last thing I want to do on a night off is drive 45 miles one way to watch another game.

So I rarely get to see the University of Maine men’s basketball team play.

But when bad weather postponed Tuesday night’s high school schedule and confined me to the homestead, up popped the chance to see the Black Bears — on TV, at least — and get a first-hand look at what the preseason hype was all about.

Based on one game out of the 28 on their schedule, the hype seems justified.

Of course, the first thing someone who doesn’t watch a lot of America East basketball needs to do is to separate it from the usual college basketball fare on TV, because while most of the teams featured on cable television have visions of winning the Big Dance, in America East and other so-called mid-major conferences it’s all about making the Big Dance.

Maine’s 72-58 victory at Vermont was a convincing tribute to the team’s depth, defense and mental toughness.

The Black Bears went 10 players deep with no loss of rhythm or momentum, and limited Vermont to 32 percent shooting from the field.

Maine led virtually from start to finish, its lead often hovering around double digits. But while Vermont narrowed the deficit several times and closed to within two points once in the second half, Maine never relinquished the lead — and one of America East’s most hostile venues for opposing teams, Patrick Gymnasium, sounded more like a study hall when Maine finally pulled away to reaffirm its grip on first place in the conference with a 5-1 record.

So am I suddenly certain that this is finally the year Maine makes the NCAA Division I tournament?

Not yet.

The shot selection is a little zany at times, and while Troy Barnies is on a hot streak and Gerald McLemore — who joined the university’s 1,000-point club during the Vermont game — has a smooth shooting stroke, I’m not sure the Black Bears have a definitive go-to guy for the final minutes of an America East tournament game.

But on this night they played hard, they played defense, and they played an entertaining brand of basketball.

Will it translate to putting more fans in the stands for home games? It should, although the worst thing the program has working for it as present is playing its home games on top of the hockey ice at Alfond Arena.

It’s not exactly a venue where a crowd could make a difference short of having 5,000 people there, which is unlikely to happen unless Maine wins the America East regular-season crown and then advances to the conference final, which under that scenario the Black Bears would host.

But that’s clearly jumping the gun. I vividly remember reading the same sorts of conversations on the Internet last year when Maine won 19 games during the regular season and earned the No. 3 seed to the America East tournament, before a disheartening quarterfinal loss to New Hampshire made all that talk wasted energy.

This year is beginning to seem different. First there were the nonconference road wins at Penn State and UMass, and now there’s a fast start to conference play, a four-game winning streak and home games upcoming against Stony Brook on Saturday night and New Hampshire next Tuesday.

Perhaps it’s time to make that 45-mile drive.

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