ORONO, Maine — After a 2016-2017 campaign that began with myriad injuries and included a well-publicized altercation, the University of Maine men’s basketball team is seeking a new beginning this winter.
Eight of the 17 players on the roster are first-time Black Bears, a ninth will be seeing his first UMaine action after sitting out last year as a transfer and two others are back after suffering season-ending injuries last winter.
Several others have transferred out of the program, including last year’s leading scorer, guard Wes Myers, whose season ended prematurely after a Valentine’s Day locker room incident in which he broke a teammate’s jaw with a punch. Myers is playing as a graduate transfer at South Carolina, a Final Four team last April.
“In a lot of ways because of what we’ve gone through with the personnel issues and the transfers, this feels like a first year with a lot of new guys,” said fourth-year UMaine coach Bob Walsh, who admits he must have patience.
“It doesn’t happen overnight, but I’m excited about the group we have and what we can do.”
UMaine (7-25 overall, 3-13 in America East last winter) is led by 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Andrew Fleming of South Paris, an AE All-Rookie Team choice after averaging 10.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
“This really matters a great deal to him,” said Walsh. “If things go the way we expect, he’ll be a key centerpiece in the building of this program.”
Other prime returners include fourth-year point guard Aaron Calixte, limited to five games last winter by a foot injury; 6-5 swingman Ilker Er, a 41-percent 3-point shooter last season before being sidelined after 11 games by a knee injury; 6-7 forward Ilija Stojiljkovic, 6-1 guard Garvey Melmed of Greenbush, and Danny Evans, a 6-5 sophomore who played on Great Britain’s U-20 national team last summer.
They are joined by 6-5 Dusan Majstorovic, a transfer from LaSalle; Miks Antoms, a 6-8 forward from Latvia via Lee Academy; and several promising junior college transfers in 6-1 guard Trae Bryant, 6-5 wing Isaiah White, 6-6 forward Duncan Douglas; 6-5 guard Vernon Lowndes Jr. and 5-10 guard Celio Araujo.
“Our strengths are our depth, versatility and skill at five different positions,” said Walsh. “That gives us competition at each spot, and that’s what makes you better as a team when you have guys fighting for minutes in practice every day.”
While the roster boasts depth, it is also undersized up front — particularly with 6-8 sophomore center Vincent Eze sidelined for the year after undergoing offseason hip surgery and Douglas nursing a stress fracture in his foot — and faces a major challenge on the backboards and defensively against taller front lines.
“That’s probably the area we could least afford injuries, but we’ve adjusted the way we’re going to play,” said Walsh. “Guys like Ilker and Ilija are going to have to play more in a forward spot.”
“As far as rebounding, it will be a five guys with a gang-rebound mentality.”
UMaine’s ability to avoid the America East cellar by March will depend in part on how the team melds during a non-conference schedule that is part preparatory, part fundraiser.
Beginning with Friday night’s opener at Boston College, part of the 2017 Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament, the Black Bears face six “guarantee games” that will generate approximately $450,000 for the university’s athletic department. Other guarantee-game opponents on the road before the New Year are Texas Tech, Georgetown, Fordham, Saint Joseph’s (Pennsylvania), and Massachusetts.
“It’s a big challenge playing ACC, Big 12, Big East, and Atlantic 10 teams, and with the travel it’s a big challenge because we need to see some success,” said Walsh, whose team played four guarantee games a year ago. “We’ve got to be really mentally tough because we could do a lot of good things and still not see a lot of wins early. We’ve got to be able to handle that.”
Defending champion Vermont is favored to earn America East’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, while Albany, Maryland Baltimore County and Stony Brook among other top contenders.
UMaine was picked last in the AE preseason coaches’ poll.
“We’ve got to be harder for other teams to score against to move up that ladder, and I think we’ve got to be hard to guard from a team standpoint,” said Walsh. “We’re going to have to spread teams out and make them have to guard five spots on the floor and take advantage of our skill as opposed to pounding it inside.”
How UMaine fares likely will determine Walsh’s future with the program. He’s in the final year of his initial UMaine contract and athletic director Karlton Creech said in March that he would wait until after this season to decide on whether not to extend Walsh’s stay on the Orono campus.
Walsh says he’s focused on trying to get the most out of his roster.
“I’m pretty sure we’re all day to day when you think about it,” he said. “I love it here. I love the opportunity. I love the culture of the school, the people. The kids we’ve got in this program that really want to be here are a ton of fun to coach every day, and it’s pretty easy just to invest in their success and work to make them better.
“I want to build a championship program,” he added. “We have a lot to prove. We have to have more success on the floor with wins and losses, no question about it, but I am convinced we can do it.”
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