Playing the fourth-ranked team in the country is an enormous challenge for the University of Maine men’s basketball team.
It is an even more daunting task with a handful of players sidelined by injuries.
Coach Ted Woodward’s Black Bears (1-0) will be undermanned Thursday night — and beyond — as they take on defending national champion Connecticut at 7 p.m. at the XL Center in downtown Hartford, Conn.
UMaine will receive an $87,500 guarantee for playing the contest.
“We all recognize what they are. We know how talented they are,” Woodward said.
UMaine was beset by injuries during the preseason and now another key player is out for the foreseeable future. Junior Mike Allison has been lost for an estimated four to six weeks with a broken bone in his right hand.
The rangy 6-foot-9 forward from Canada reportedly underwent surgery on the hand Monday after being injured during a Sunday practice.
Allison also missed the Bears’ exhibition win over the University of Ottawa on Nov. 5, albeit with a different injury.
“He’s been one of our best guys the entire preseason,” said a disappointed Woodward, who pointed out some of his seniors have considerable experience against top-25 competition.
Senior forward Travon Wilcher has been out all preseason and is wearing a protective boot on his injured left foot/ankle. He is expected to miss at least another week and a half.
Walk-on freshman forward Ethan Mackey is expected to miss the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery. And freshman guard Noam Laish also continues to work his way back from an injury that has significantly reduced his practice time.
That means UMaine’s post rotation has been reduced to 6-7 sophomore forward Alasdair Fraser, 6-9 senior center Svetoslav Chetinov and 6-7 freshman forward Kilian Cato.
“It’s going to be tough, but what can you do?” Woodward said after Monday night’s season-opening victory over the University of Maine at Machias.
Even though the Bears may be able to play smaller, guard-oriented lineups against some opponents, Thursday’s game presents a formidable task in terms of defending in the post.
UConn is big, with its starters measuring 6-8, 6-8 and 6-9 across the front. The backups are 6-8 and 6-10.
UMaine may have to be content to try bottling up the middle with a 2-3 zone or 3-2 matchup zone and risk giving up some open 3-point looks.
“Their inside guys are long and extremely athletic. The feed off of turnovers. They feed off of blocked shots,” Woodward said Wednesday on “Downtown” with Rich Kimball.
The Huskies can score quickly off opponents’ misses and turnovers, which is another key concern for Woodward.
“You’ve got to make sure you do a great job in transition defense against them,” he said. “We need to really make them score against some set defense and not in transition.”
UConn’s proficiency in that area may also affect the Bears’ willingness to try forcing the tempo, even though Woodward believes that is a strength of his team. UMaine doesn’t want to play the game at the Huskies’ pace.
UMaine freshman guard Justin Edwards is excited about the chance to play UConn, but knows the Bears will be severely tested.
The keys are “just to lock up defensively, [give up] no easy 3’s, no easy drives [in the lane],” Edwards said.