Twitter blew up Friday night with lamentations of the University of Maine’s links to the Florida Gulf Coast upset of Georgetown.
The first, and typical, response from this desolate haunt in which we always seem to be playing six-degrees-of-separation with the real world, was the observation that Maine beat FGCU, 84-78, during the regular season.
Duly noted, but let’s stay classy and not try to mooch excessively off the Eagles’ accomplishment, shall we? The game was played at 2 p.m., three days before Christmas, in a three-quarters-empty hockey arena. Not optimum conditions for the gang from Fort Myers.
Then came the secondary, masochistic activity of using the good fortune of hoop’s nouveau riche to underscore our perpetual struggles.
Maine men’s basketball has lived to the ripe, old age of 93 without getting a sniff of the NCAA tournament. Florida Gulf Coast, which went on to beat San Diego State Sunday night to earn a Sweet 16 berth, is one of 310 schools to dance at least once. It was chartered as a school during the Clinton administration, holding its first classes in portable trailers.
Easy to dump on the Black Bears when they were sitting home after another loss in the America East quarterfinals while a direct competitor of Kaplan and DeVry became the latest poster school for March Madness. But it’s an unfair comparison.
Not sure if you noticed, but there was one Pine Tree State player — Tom Knight at Notre Dame — in the entire field of 68. Much-maligned Maine coach Ted Woodward, like Dr. John Giannini (go La Salle!) and Rudy Keeling before him, has a reservoir of homegrown, Division I-capable talent that is more of a mud puddle than a talent pool.
Almost every other mid-major team in the field, even the ones with six geographical directions in their name that you couldn’t point out on a map if a million bucks were on the line, has easy access to those bodies.
Imagine what a different ballgame it would be for Woodward if he were able to load up his program with Florida, Florida State and Miami’s leftovers, as Andy Enfield of Florida Gulf Coast can. Actually, “different” isn’t the right word. Woodward would look like a freaking genius. And Maine would be in the tournament within a year or two, guaranteed.
I’ve heard locals — and I suppose they put athletics ahead of education and the embracing of challenges — who what-if themselves into a world where Knight chose the Black Bears over the Fighting Irish. Hate to burst their bubble, but I suspect it would have taken the pride of Dixfield the same three or four years to adjust to the college game here, too.
Even the in-state stars who have gone Woodward’s way were projects, in a sense. Troy Barnies of Auburn and Sean McNally of Gardiner were thrust into starting roles as freshmen, but the numbers and the time on the trainer’s table revealed two teenagers who still needed to time to grow physically and mentally into contributors at that level.
It wasn’t until his senior year that Barnies exhibited the full complement of skills that have served him so well in Turkey and Finland as a professional. The primary reason is that neither he nor McNally encountered that day-in, day-out, exorbitant level of competition before college.
I can promise you that every player on the floor for Florida Gulf Coast, even though they suit up for a school most of us didn’t know existed until 7 p.m. Friday, went sneaker-to-sneaker with five Division I prospects almost every night of their high school careers.
Maine doesn’t have that endless supply of players who slip through the recruiting cracks. It also has every geographical and meteorological disadvantage imaginable. Why do you think the Black Bears’ roster is customarily laden with players from Canada and Scandinavia? At least the coach’s sales pitch isn’t laughable to them, as it would be to a kid from beneath the Sun and Bible belts.
Boston University, Albany, Stony Brook, Maryland-Baltimore County, Binghamton and Vermont — the teams that typically stand between Maine and a first-round date with Duke or Kansas every year — have much closer access to an honest-to-goodness recruiting base than do the Black Bears. You don’t have to be an economics or anthropology major to figure out that isn’t going to change soon.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I detest our state’s built-in inferiority complex and the part of our culture that accepts settling. I’m not advocating that here.
I’m simply saying that Maine’s shortcomings in men’s hoop, and the overnight success of others who have shelled out a far smaller amount of dues, are not something easily flip-flopped by a new coach or a refurbished arena.
We might beat the Florida Gulf Coasts of the world on home hardwood in December. By the time March rolls around, though, what Maine offers might be no match for the sun that’s baking the roof of those portable trailers.
Kalle Oakes is a Sun Journal staff columnist. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.