ORONO, Maine — It has already been a tumultuous offseason for the University of Maine men’s basketball program.
Three starters, including two all-conference players, are leaving UMaine in the wake of an 11-19 season under ninth-year head coach Ted Woodward.
Dynamic guard Justin Edwards previously announced he intends to transfer to a higher-level Division I program. Standout post player Alasdair Fraser also has received a release from his National Letter of Intent and is contemplating either starting a professional career in Europe or possibly transferring elsewhere.
Most recently, junior shooting specialist Jon Mesghna confirmed he is leaving UMaine. He plans to play on scholarship next season at Division II Montana State University-Billings.
The transfers come on the heels of a season during which the Bears went 6-10 in America East play for the second straight year and lost in the quarterfinals of the league tournament. It was their eighth straight first-round loss in the postseason.
The program’s recent woes have not gone unnoticed by the UMaine administration.
“We’re at a point with our basketball program where we have not been able, for whatever reason, to get to the level we want to be at,” said athletics director Steve Abbott. “We haven’t been able to move ahead.”
With a $5 million upgrade to the New Balance Field House already under way and a $10 million renovation scheduled for the Memorial Gym building in 2014 as part of the project, UMaine President Paul Ferguson has exhibited a keener interest in the men’s basketball program.
Ferguson, Abbott and Woodward met recently to discuss the direction of the program.
“The president and the administration are very focused on basketball right now with the major capital expenditure that we’re making,” Abbott said. “It is something that we want to emphasize in the years ahead. They’re definitely paying attention to our program and the president is personally committed to seeing the program improve.”
UMaine is 23-36 in the two seasons since Woodward received a three-year contract extension in 2011 that takes him through the 2014-15 season. The contract came on the heels of consecutive third-place, regular-season finishes by UMaine, which went a combined 34-26 from 2009-2011.
Woodward said the expectation for winning consistently is one that, for him, hasn’t changed.
“You always put pressure on yourself,” he said. “That’s what we do every year. There’s expectations every year to go out and be a team that’s going to compete every time you go out and play.”
Woodward said he is excited about the prospects for the team moving forward based on the returning talent, the players’ offseason training efforts and the quality of the incoming freshmen.
He said the moves by Edwards and Fraser were not unexpected, based on their talent and long-term goals. He explained the departures are a sign of the times in Division I basketball.
“That, unfortunately, happens in college basketball right now,” Woodward said of transfers. “Last year it was over 450 and it’s got a chance to go over that again.”
The three departing players accounted for more than 53 percent of UMaine’s scoring last season, which leaves the Bears with some big voids going into next season.
“Historically, we’ve had very few [players] transfer during Ted’s tenure here at Maine. This year is unusual for us, but not an uncommon phenomenon for college basketball,” said Abbott, who added, “It definitely causes us to look at our program and to think about what the reasons are.”
Abbott said each player has a distinct reason for pursuing other opportunities, but said neither Fraser nor Edwards articulated having any issues with Woodward as part of their rationale for leaving UMaine.
“Alasdair and Justin were very clear about what they wanted to do and neither of them expressed dissatisfaction with their current situation,” explained Abbott, who has not spoken to Mesghna about his decision.
While Edwards and Fraser have not made themselves available for comment, Mesghna was willing to talk about his frustrating season at UMaine.
The 6-foot-6 guard from Germany accomplished a longtime goal last April when he signed an NLI to attend Division I UMaine after spending two years at junior colleges in Wyoming and North Dakota.
Now, he is on the move again.
“I feel like I’m quitting because I made this jump from juco [junior college] to DI,” Mesghna said. “Going back to DII, it’s something that right now I’m having some trouble with, but I know it’s better for me to take this route.”
Things started well for the 23-year-old Mesghna, who played in 26 of UMaine’s 29 games, including 22 starts. He provided a presence from the 3-point arc and shot 38 percent (41-for-107) to rank sixth in America East.
Mesghna averaged 6.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 25.2 minutes per contest.
In January, he experienced significant shooting struggles during a four-game stretch and his playing time plummeted during the latter part of the season.
“I know I was playing not good, not good at all,” admitted Mesghna, who missed two games in mid-February because of the flu. Then, over the last five contests, he did not play in two of them and logged only 16 total minutes.
“I know I can play at this level. I would love to stay here,” said Mesghna.
“My senior year is too precious for me to sit on the bench and have to deal with the same issues,” he said.
Mesghna stressed that he is grateful to UMaine Associate Head Coach Doug Leichner for the way he recruited him and for his guidance during his time in Orono.
“He was really the reason why I took so long to decide to leave,” said Mesghna, who aspires to play professionally in Germany and become a coach when his playing days are done.