Coach Ted Woodward realized his team was going to endure some growing pains this winter.
The University of Maine men’s basketball team started with no seniors and only two upperclassmen after losing three would-be seniors to transfer or the pro ranks.
When the 2013-2014 campaign ended Saturday night with an 80-54 loss to Stony Brook in the America East quarterfinals, the Black Bears had suffered through a 6-23 season (4-12 in league play).
“We realized we had to fill a lot of productivity in terms of points, rebounds, interior defense and experience,” Woodward said. “While we don’t like the term ‘rebuilding’ year, we had some holes to fill in many areas with several our players in new roles.”
It marked the fewest victories by a UMaine team since 1956-57 (6-16) and was the second lowest winning percentage (.207) in the program’s 94-year history. It was the ninth consecutive season Maine had lost in either a first-round or quarterfinal game.
Coming on the heels of an 11-19 season, the effort has led some fans to question whether Woodward should return for the final year of his contract.
“I don’t wish to comment on my job,” said the 10th-year coach, who after Saturday’s loss told the media his future was “out of my hands” when asked if he was concerned about his future at UMaine.
As of Tuesday, UMaine ranked No. 329 of 349 Division I men’s teams in the NCAA Rating Percentage Index.
The graduation of Mike Allison and the loss of all-conference standouts Alasdair Fraser and Justin Edwards left the Bears lacking in experience, particularly in the frontcourt. P oint guard Xavier Pollard and shooting guards Zarko Valjarevic and Kilian Cato, who returned from an academic suspension in late December, were the junior contributors.
UMaine leaned heavily on its sophomore class, which included redshirt forward Ethan Mackey, guards Shaun Lawton and Dimitry Akanda-Coronel, and Till Gloger, the only post player with significant game experience.
UMaine also worked four freshmen into the mix, with point guard Troy Reid-Knight, Garet Beal of Beals Island, Marko Pirovic and Christian Ejiga seeing significant action.
Sophomore Stefan Micovic played sparingly and freshman Erik Nissen was plagued by injuries.
“They have a tremendous amount of toughness, character, potential, a great work ethic and heart,” Woodward said of the freshmen.
The Bears’ glaring weakness was their defense. UMaine ranked last in America East, allowing 82.9 points per game on 47 percent shooting with a minus-7.1 rebounding margin.
“We struggled with some physical play and rebounds, particularly early in the year,” Woodward said, “and although we improved, it is an area we need to continually get better at physically and strategically throughout our team.”
The Bears, who averaged 7.6 steals, had only three conference losses of fewer than 11 points and lost by an average of 15.4 points in league games.
Offense was not a problem as UMaine scored 72.1 points per contest to rank No. 2 in America East. The Bears excelled in transition behind Pollard, Akanda-Coronel and Lawton and also could break down opponents in the half-court game.
As a tribute to their offensive chemistry, the Bears led the conference with 14.4 assists per game. However, they also were the most turnover-prone (15.1).
“We need to become a better rebounding and defensive team while keeping our offense consistent,” Woodward said, “a key item we worked on during the year and one that will be a large focus of our staff in the offseason.”
UMaine’s catalyst was the sometimes-volatile Pollard, a third-team All-AE selection who averaged a team-best 14.7 points and was second in assists (3.8 apg) and steals (1.8). He was able to break down defenses off the dribble.
Both Pollard (one game) and Akanda-Coronel (three games) were suspended during the season for violations of team rules.
Valjarevic (11.3 ppg) emerged as the league’s second-best 3-point shooter at .438 (67-for-153). Akanda-Coronel posted 10.4 ppg and joined Pollard and Lawton in turning up the intensity in UMaine’s pressure defenses.
Lawton provided 8.1 ppg, topped the squad in assists (4.2 apg) and led America East in steals (2.0) despite a propensity for turnovers. Reid-Knight (6.5 ppg, 2.3 apg) showed off the ability to score and run the offense, while Cato (5.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg) sometimes boosted the perimeter game.
The Bears had trouble establishing a post game, but both Gloger (7.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and nonscholarship player Mackey (5.1 ppg, team-leading 4.8 rpg) showed considerable improvement. Depth was a concern up front, where Ejiga (2.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and Micovic (1.3 ppg, 2.1 rpg) were inconsistent.
Beal (4.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg) and Pirovic (3.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg) showed flashes of good things to come while Nissen (3.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg) appeared in only nine games.
UMaine should return its entire corps of scholarship players. However, the Bears must individually and collectively improve their defensive skills if they want to return to respectability.
Barring any departures (Woodward said he has not been approached about any possible transfers), UMaine has only one scholarship available. That should go to Mackey, based on his emergence.
Woodward is optimistic about next season.
“This has been a great group to coach,” Woodward said, “one that has come to work hard consistently, gets along great with chemistry, is eager to learn and has confidence in themselves and their future. I, and our staff, will be working very hard to help them reach that potential.”