ORONO — There are many unknowns for the University of Maine men’s basketball team as it tips off the 2011-12 season.
That is exactly what should make things so intriguing for the Black Bears and their fans.
Coach Ted Woodward returns a solid nucleus, including All-America East guard Gerald McLemore, but there is plenty of playing time up for grabs among the returnees and a class of seven freshmen.
That influx of talent should make for strong competition among team members as UMaine tries to remain in the upper echelon of America East.
The Black Bears open the season Monday at Memorial Gym with a 7 p.m. contest against the University of Maine-Machias.
UMaine is coming off a 15-15 season during which it lost eight of its last nine games, including an America East quarterfinal.
Woodward said the five seniors on the squad who helped the Bears challenge for the regular-season title will play a critical role in this team’s fortunes.
“We have a group of seniors that have really set the standard of how we’re going to play, what our work ethic’s going to be like, how we need to play together,” Woodward said.
The senior class is led by co-captain McLemore, who averaged 13.7 points on 38-percent 3-point accuracy while shooting 87 percent from the foul line last season.
“He continued to work on how he’s able to create his own shot instead of relying on screens and other things,” Woodward said. “He’s really made himself stronger and hopefully he’ll be able to help him keep his durability.”
Co-captains Raheem Singleton (8.6 ppg, 3.7 apg) and Andrew Rogers (2.8 ppg, 2.3 apg) give the Bears different looks at point guard. A trimmed-down Singleton is more of a slasher who likes to attack the basket, while Rogers is a heady floor general who can shoot the 3-pointer.
In the pivot, 6-foot-9 Svetoslav Chetinov and 6-7 Travon Wilcher are hoping to make bigger contributions.
“This group of seniors is anxious to come back and really put their own mark on this team,” Woodward said.
Two key returnees are committed to increasing their playing time in the frontcourt.
Sophomore forward Alasdair Fraser averaged 5.5 points and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 55 percent from the floor last season. Junior forward Mike Allison (2.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg) also hopes to help fill the void created by the departure of Maine-grown standouts Troy Barnies of Auburn and Sean McNally of Gardiner.
“We’re bigger, longer in that spot and we’re not quite as skill off the dribble, but we’re very confident in those guys,” Woodward said.
Fraser dropped more than 25 pounds during the offseason, but gives the Bears a strong, rugged post presence.
Allison is a lanky player who has demonstrated the ability to rebound and block shots.
“Ali is really trying to establish himself as a key inside guy,” Woodward said. “He’s a post that can finish around the basket, has soft hands.”
Allison will get increased playing time alongside Fraser as they try to compensate for the loss of 19 points and 11.5 rebounds from their predecessors.
“Mike has defensive player of the year potential,” Woodward said. “He is extremely long, gets off his feet easily and he’s got quickness. He is playing with tremendous confidence and energy.”
The Bears expect immediate contributions form some of their promising first-year players. That group is led by 6-3 combination guard Justin Edwards, a dynamic, versatile player who knows how to score.
“He’s a guy who has a chance to make a strong and immediate impact on our team,” Woodward said.
He’ll bolster the backcourt along with freshman Noam Laish, who has been dealing with injuries during preseason.
“He’s a lights-out shooter,” offered Woodward, who also praised the efforts of freshman guard Xavier Pollard.
“He’s a guy that can, defensively, potentially be a stopper for us at some point. He has the ablility to explode and score at any moment.”
The other guards are junior Jon McAllian of Bangor and freshman Zarko Valjarevic, both of whom are 3-point shooters.
Woodward also expects good things from freshman forward Kilian Cato, who combines size and agility.
“He gives us a 6-8 guy that can rebound and shoot the 3-point shot from the power forward position,” Woodward said.
Also on the squad are walk-ons in guard Stefano Mancini of Falmouth and forward Ethan Mackey, who is likely to sit out the season after having knee surgery.
UMaine team is bigger up front and small but quick at the guard positions.
“We will have three guards on the floor the majority of games,” Woodward said. “We’re a little more open with how we’re playing right now, mainly because there are times when we have multiple point guards out there.”
Woodward said the Bears’ guard depth and inside strength also should enable them to ratchet up their defensive efforts.
“We definitely are going into the season wanting to increase our defensive pressure,” he said. “I think you’ll continue to see us develop as a basketball team.”
That will be the key dynamic on a team that needs its less-tested veterans to become front-line players and will require its newcomers to mesh quickly.
“We’ve had some outstanding practices and I really like our group of guys mentally and physically, and I’m anxious to keep working with them,” Woodward said.