Unless a couple of thousand people are attending every home game dressed as blue seats, the University of Maine men’s basketball team is once again toiling in virtual anonymity in 2010-11.
Last Tuesday’s 64-50 romp over rival University of New Hampshire drew a listed, and probably listless, crowd of 1,268 to Alfond Arena. Granted, temperatures were struggling to make it out of the single digits. But that was only 100 fewer spectators than the average attendance this year.
Frankly, history suggests that it wouldn’t matter if Alfond Arena transformed into an Acapulco-like tropical oasis amid our January deep freeze for every UMaine men’s basketball game — no one outside of family, friends and a few hundred college basketball junkies and Black Bear loyalists will set foot in Alfond unless there’s a Zamboni driving in ovals once every 20 minutes.
Fair enough. The Black Bears have had a less than stellar hardwood history, certainly not one to match their female or skating classmates.
Since 1991, the Maine men have played in four conference title games — the Derrick Hodge-directed darkhorses of 1991; the Casey Arena/Francois Bouchard-led hopefuls of 1994 (both back in the old North Atlantic Conference days); the Errick Greene/Justin Rowe Cinderellas of 2002 and the Eric Dobson/Kevin Reed/Mark Flavin squad that served as fodder for Taylor Coppenrath in 2004.
The Black Bears didn’t just lose all four games, they were mere afterthoughts, bowing by an average of 16 points per game.
In between, there were some underachieving teams (the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 teams went a combined 43-16, only to be ousted in the conference semifinals both years), as well as numerous, seemingly inevitable, rebuilding seasons and five consecutive sub-.500 campaigns from 2005 to 2009.
Nowhere in that history, of course, is an NCAA tournament bid. But that could change in six weeks.
If it does, look no further than Auburn for the reason why.
The 2010-11 Black Bears are Troy Barnies’ team. Not because he is their leading scorer and rebounder, although you could have made your wallet considerably fatter if someone had given you odds on that happening.
No offense to head coach Ted Woodward, but the Bears are cut in Barnies’ blue collar image.
Barnies took the maniacal work ethic that transformed him from an awkward, jump-shooting freshman into an all-around dominant senior at Edward Little to Orono with him four years ago.
For the last three years, he’s been the Black Bear with the lunch bucket and hard hat, taking on the thankless tasks or whatever role Woodward needed him to fill from game to game while others put up the big numbers.
This year, through a combination of necessity and the maturation of his inside game, he has been Maine’s go-to guy while shooting an impressive 53 percent from the floor.
With co-captain and roommate Sean McNally limited by nagging injuries, Barnies has picked up the slack. He has led the Bears in scoring in eight of their 21 games and six of their nine conference contests. He’s also third on the team in assists, trailing only the point guard platoon of Raheem Singleton and Andrew Rogers.
Barnies’ biggest impact on the team, however, is in its character.
Along with Gardiner native McNally, he started transforming the culture of the team as a junior. With only one senior on the roster last year, Barnies and McNally saw a leadership void, and seized the opportunity. For the first two years of their career, the team had been divided into a rigid hierarchy, with underclassmen and role players regularly put in their place and made to feel their contributions weren’t important.
At the local duo’s prompting, Maine has more of an all-for-one, one-for-all ethic now. It hasn’t just been good for team chemistry, although that hasn’t hurt. Woodward has the deepest roster of his seven-year tenure, and one of the deepest in the program’s history.
Woodward says he recruited Barnies and McNally in large part because of their character, and he has surrounded them with other players of high character. Junior Gerald McLemore is about as unselfish as a preseason all-conference selection can be. Senior Terrance Mitchell would be starting for most teams in America East, but relishes being a leader off the bench.
The Black Bears boast the highest-scoring offense in America East, but what sets this team apart is its defense, its willingness to share the basketball while also taking care of it, and its ability to win on the road. Maine is 4-0 on the road in-conference, 7-3 for the season, a record which includes impressive victories at Penn State, UMass and Vermont.
Those are signs of a team that plays with poise, passion and an uncommon work ethic, and those are worth the price of admission by themselves.
But going to Orono can take a big chunk out of the money clip just by filling up the gas tank. So how about checking out a couple of games from the comfort of the living room to get yourself up to speed?
Maine has at least two televised games coming up, Wednesday night against BU (7:30 p.m. on Comcast Sports New England) and a morning match with Stony Brook (11 a.m., ESPNU) on Feb. 12.
If you don’t catch them in February, you may be kicking yourself in March when Barnies and the Black Bears are making history.
Copyright (c) 2011, Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine
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