BANGOR, Maine — When the University of Maine men’s basketball team makes its preseason debut in an exhibition game against Husson University on Saturday, it will unveil a new look.
Eight different players will don the Black Bears’ uniform in game action for the first time, along with two veterans who had their 2016-2017 season cut short by injury.
And the entirety of coach Bob Walsh’s club will employ new offensive and defensive strategies designed to help UMaine improve on last winter’s 7-25 record.
UMaine’s clash with a talented NCAA Division III team in Husson (3 p.m., Cross Insurance Center) that has won back-to-back North Atlantic Conference championships likely will represent an early check of UMaine’s ability not only to get to know its new basketball sets, but each other.
“I think they really go hand in hand,” said UMaine sophomore forward Andrew Fleming, the Oxford Hills of South Paris product who was named to the America East All-Rookie Team last winter after averaging 10.7 points and 6.5 rebounds for the Black Bears.
“We’ve been practicing for a few weeks, and just getting to know the guys and how they play has been a big thing. Off the court, a lot of guys stay with each other off campus and just being around the guys as much as we can really helps build that chemistry.”
Fleming figures to be one of the on-court leaders this winter along with 5-foot-11 guard Aaron Calixte, the former Lee Academy standout and fourth-year Black Bear who played in just five games last winter before being sidelined with a fractured foot.
“We do have a new offense and we do have a new defense so we do put a lot of time into that,” said Calixte. “But a lot of it is building relationships on and off the court with the new guys we have.”
Walsh and his staff believe the nature of the newcomers — including five junior college transfers as well as Dusan Majstorovic, a 6-5 guard who sat out last winter after transferring from LaSalle — will combine with returning veterans like Fleming, Calixte and 6-5 guard Ilker Er, who averaged 10.1 points in 11 games last winter before being sidelined with a knee injury, will provide the team a level of maturity it lacked last winter.
“You see it every day so you feel good about it,” said Walsh, now in his fourth year as UMaine’s head coach. “You can just tell there’s a response from these guys that is mature. They can handle criticism, they want to be coached and they compete for each other.
“But ultimately you don’t know until you go out and see it in games, so with a game like Husson we’ll start to see how we respond to all the new stuff we’re doing.”
UMaine lost an exhibition game to UMaine-Fort Kent last fall, and while the impact of that loss on the rest of the season is unknown, it turned out to be at least an omen of what was to come during a campaign that was injury-plagued from the start and ended in the America East basement.
Getting off to a more optimistic opening this year in exhibition games against Husson and then Saint Joseph’s College of Standish at Memorial Gymnasium in Orono on Nov. 5, represents the sought-after first step in building a better foundation for the 2017-2018 campaign that formally commences Nov. 10 at Boston College in the first round of the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament.
“Everyone’s on board and focused toward the goal of getting to the point where we can win a championship in America East,” said Fleming. “I think we’re on a great path to do that. We just have to keep working every day and keep competing.”
Husson, which finished 21-7 a year ago and qualified for the NCAA Division III tournament, returns a significant veteran nucleus. The Eagles are led by one of the nation’s top scorers last season in senior guard Raheem Anderson (26.3 ppg), and coach Warren Caruso and his staff also have brought in a highly anticipated recruiting class.
As for UMaine, Walsh is looking during the exhibition season for players from among both his veterans and newcomers capable of leading his struggling program toward upward mobility once America East play arrives in January.
“You look to see who shows up with confidence, who has that natural presence out here when the lights are on and the fans are here and feels really comfortable adjusting and making plays,” he said. “Those are the guys, it seems to me, that you feel you can really count on.
“And then it’s a lot of the stuff we talk about every day, just the way we compete, the way we play for each other, the unselfish nature with the basketball. Really it’s a presence and a confidence that says a player can be really good for us.”
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