Youthful UMaine men’s basketball team off to worst start in 44 years

University of Maine head coach Ted Woodward watches from the sideline as his team plays UConn in Hartford, Conn., earlier this month.
David Butler II | USA Today Sports
University of Maine head coach Ted Woodward watches from the sideline as his team plays UConn in Hartford, Conn., earlier this month.
Posted Dec. 17, 2013, at 1:14 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 17, 2013, at 6:45 p.m.
UMaine's Shaun Lawton goes to the hoop against Quinnipiac's Umar Shannon last month at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
UMaine's Shaun Lawton goes to the hoop against Quinnipiac's Umar Shannon last month at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Buy Photo

It has been a rocky beginning to the season for the University of Maine men’s basketball team.

Coach Ted Woodward’s Black Bears are 1-8, the worst start for a UMaine ballclub since the 1969-70 squad lost 11 of its first 12 games.

UMaine is trying to rebuild after losing six players, including All-America East performers Alasdair Fraser and Justin Edwards, along with senior forward Mike Allison and part-time starter Jon Mesghna, off last year’s team.

The Black Bears’ 2013-2014 roster includes no seniors and only two junior scholarship players. There are 12 underclassmen, including seven freshmen.

“Obviously, we’ve got a lot of guys at new positions. We’ve got a long way to go,” Woodward said Tuesday.

“We really need to find our identity defensively in the half-court, not allow points in transition and finish off possessions (with rebounds) when teams do miss,” he added.

UMaine was 319th among 351 Division I teams in ESPN’s most recent unofficial Rating Percentage Index and is No. 350 of 351 in the Sagarin computer rankings published by USA Today. America East foes Maryland Baltimore County (307), Binghamton (341) and UMass Lowell (344) also are well down on the Sagarin list.

Defense and rebounding have been the most glaring problems for UMaine, which has allowed a league-high 89.6 points per game on nearly 47 percent shooting. Only eight Division I teams have given up more points.

Opponents also are connecting at a 38 percent clip on 3-pointers, averaging eight per contest.

Some of UMaine’s issues stem from its lack of frontcourt experience. Sophomore Ethan Mackey, at 6-foot-7, has been serviceable and 6-9 sophomore Stefan Micovic has seen more minutes of late. Classmate Till Gloger’s playing time has declined.

That group’s relative ineffectiveness on the glass has placed more pressure on the guards. The Bears have been outrebounded by nearly 10 per game. Junior point guard Xavier Pollard is the top rebounder (5.2 rpg), followed by Mackey (4.6 rpg) and freshman Garet Beal of Beals Island (3.6 rpg).

Erik Nissen, a 6-9 freshman, is out with a knee ailment, while 6-8 classmate Christian Ejiga is learning the Division I ropes and has played sparingly.

“We’ve got to find a way to be consistent on the defensive end and finish off rebounds,” said Woodward, who pointed out rebounding has negatively affected the defensive numbers.

“You give a team 10 extra possessions a game, you give them 10 (or more) extra points a game,” he explained. “We’re looking at some different ways to get some of our rebounders in better position.”

The Bears’ 8.2 steals per game are second in America East and No. 44 in the country. Sophomore guard Shaun Lawton has swiped 2.38 per game, 29th in Division I.

UMaine has exhibited plenty of offensive production early in the season and leads America East at 76.4 points per game. Four players are averaging double figures, spearheaded by Pollard (17.0 ppg), sophomore Dimitry Akanda-Coronel (14.6 ppg), junior Zarko Valjarevic (13.1 ppg) and Lawton (10.8 ppg).

The Bears are shooting 44 percent from the field but have converted only 63 percent of their free throws. Beal (7.6 ppg), freshman Troy Reid-Knight (5.4 ppg) and Mackey (4.1 ppg) all have been offensive contributors.

They also lead the conference while averaging 14.8 assists and rank second in turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio. UMaine’s ball-distribution catalysts are Lawton (4.8 apg) and Pollard (3.5 apg).

“Offensively, we’ve been at the top of the league and our turnovers are way down,” Woodward said.

Valjarevic has provided a perimeter presence and tops America East with 2.9 3-pointers and his 42 percent accuracy from long distance.

This UMaine team must be able to combine consistently steady man-to-man play with some zone sets and pressure. Woodward’s ballclub also needs to continue to build chemistry heading into conference play.

“It’s a team that’s got a lot of moving parts, a lot of new pieces. It’s a group that comes to work hard every day, but we’ve got to keep working to get our problems solved,” Woodward said.

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