ORONO, Maine — It will be a vastly different University of Maine men’s basketball team that takes the floor for Friday’s season opener at Rhode Island.
The Black Bears have limited upperclass experience and leadership and an abundance of youthful potential with a group of 11 underclassmen.
Tenth-year head coach Ted Woodward knows UMaine has a lot of production to replace with the departure of four starters in All-America East performers Alasdair Fraser and Justin Edwards, All-Defensive pick Mike Allison and Jon Mesghna, along with Jon McAllian and Kilian Cato.
The Bears will try to overcome the loss of 65 percent of their scoring and 65 percent of their rebounding off last season’s 11-19 ballclub that went 6-10 in America East and suffered the program’s eighth consecutive postseason loss.
Fraser is playing professionally in Germany, Edwards transferred to Kansas State and Mesghna departed for a Division II program while Allison and McAllian graduated. Cato is serving an academic suspension.
The lackluster 2012-2013 season and the unexpected departures have put Woodward and his program under the scrutiny of athletic director Steve Abbott and UMaine President Paul Ferguson.
UMaine has only a handful of proven performers. The senior-less contingent is led by junior point guard Xavier Pollard, who averaged 9.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists a year ago.
He is joined by classmate Zarko Valjarevic (8.4 ppg), a 3-point specialist who shot only 34 percent last winter. Guards Dimitry Coronel (3.4 ppg) and Shaun Lawton (3.3 ppg, 2.1 apg), 6-foot-7 posts Till Gloger (2.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg) and Ethan Mackey, and 6-9 forward Stefan Micovic are the five sophomores looking to earn more prominent roles. Junior guard Luke Hetterman of Bangor also returns.
“I’m excited about the returning guys, the things that they’ve done, how hard they’ve worked,” Woodward said.
The Black Bears also have welcomed in a group of six freshmen, a class headlined by Parade All-American and BDN All-Maine first-team pick Garet Beal of Beals Island, a 6-6 swing player. Other newcomers include point guard Troy Reid-Knight, 6-8 Christian Ejiga, 6-7 Marko Pirovic, 6-9 Erik Nissen and walkon Mitch Worcester of Washburn.
“I think this is a fantastic freshman class,” Woodward said.
“As far as our newcomers go, we have a lot of guys who really understand how to play the game and have the versatility and physicalness to back it up.”
Woodward also pointed to the international experience of some players as being an added bonus to help them make the transition to the Division I game.
As it attempts to re-establish a consistent presence in the post, UMaine likely will try to capitalize on its versatile perimeter players. The guard nucleus averages 6-foot-3½.
“We’re a little more interchangeable on the perimeter,” Woodward said. “We have more ballhandling and shooting, a little more skill.”
It appears as though Gloger, Ejiga and Mackey will be among the players sharing the load in the paint.
“We’re a little bit younger in the post, but Till got minutes for us last year,” Woodward said. “Christian Ejiga is as physical a guy as we’ve had on the inside in a while.”
Woodward said the Bears lineup should be conducive to playing a more fast-paced, attacking style on both ends of the floor.
UMaine will have to establish its rotations early and work other players in as they demonstrate a readiness to compete. Judging from its preseason practice intensity and collective attitude, Woodward is hopeful this group can take significant strides as the season progresses.
“It’s a really pleasurable group to be around,” Woodward said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that really understand the game and who have tremendous work ethics.”
Another new dynamic for the UMaine men’s team is its primary home court, the brand-new Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. The Bears will be playing the majority of their games in the facility, with a handful slated at Memorial Gym in Orono.
Despite having his youngest team in years, Woodward may be under the microscope this season. Since going 19-11 during the 2009-2010 season, UMaine has a 38-51 overall record and a 21-29 America East mark the last three seasons.
In 2011, Woodward was awarded a three-year contract extension through 2014-2015, but both former women’s basketball coach Cindy Blodgett and former men’s ice hockey coach Tim Whitehead were terminated before their contracts ran out.