ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine men’s basketball team enjoyed a strong finish to the 2012 portion of its schedule.
On Saturday, the Black Bears claimed their second straight victory, a 76-71 decision over Quinnipiac in Hamden, Conn.
That win, coupled with UMaine’s victory over Florida Gulf Coast on Dec. 22, seems to indicate this ballclub is starting to come together.
“There’s lots of growth going on right now,” said sophomore guard Justin Edwards, who on Monday picked up his second straight America East Player of the Week honor.
“We’re trying to keep it up and keep working on our game in practice so we can just keep moving on and progressing,” he said.
Coach Ted Woodward’s team (5-8) is now refocusing for the important part of its season, the America East schedule. The Black Bears open conference play 7 p.m. Wednesday with a home game against league Boston University at Alfond Arena.
UMaine experienced some struggles and inconsistency during the nonconference season. The team spent a lot of time on buses, in airplanes and living out of hotel rooms.
The Bears went 2-7 on the road, taking on some good competition with the likes of Seton Hall, Duquesne, Florida State, Army and Marist.
That exacerbated the challenge Woodward and his staff have had attempting to blend a handful of untested players into a small nucleus of proven veterans.
“This team was just a little different early on,” Woodward said. “It was very young. We had a lot of new guys in different positions.”
The Bears continue building around three mainstays who played regularly a year ago. Edwards, junior forward Alasdair Fraser and senior Mike Allison have been asked to shoulder a lot of responsibility early this season.
UMaine is the top-scoring team in America East, averaging 69.1 points per game. Edwards is the No. 1 scorer (18.5 ppg), while Fraser is eighth in scoring (13.0 ppg) and second in rebounding (9.4 rpg).
Sophomore point guard Xavier Pollard (4.5 assists per game) has stepped in as a full-time starter and has helped accelerate the overall maturation process of the team.
However, the Bears have also been trying to fast-forward some other players to develop court balance, versatility and depth.
Junior college transfer Jon Mesghna, a junior, has provided a needed 3-point presence (41 percent) along with another rebounder. Freshman post player Till Gloger is seeing considerable minutes backing up Fraser and Allison.
UMaine also is attempting to find more quality minutes for freshman guards Shaun Lawton and Dimitry Akanda-Coronel, each of whom has shown flashes of outstanding play.
Sprinkle in sophomore guard Zarko Valjarevic, who has been sidelined by an injury, along with sophomore Kilian Cato, senior Jon McAllian of Bangor and freshman forward Stefan Micovic, and there is even more potential.
“Sometimes we had a little trouble finding some rhythm,” Woodward said of the Bears’ inconsistency. “I think we’re starting to develop a little bit of who we are. I think we’re confident, whether it’s a full-court or half-court game. But we’ve got a lot of work to do still.”
Some of that work must come on the defensive end. UMaine has allowed a league-high 74.5 ppg, allowing teams to score in transition and from the 3-point arc (.330).
The Bears have bolstered their rebounding efforts and rank third in AE rebounding margin (rebounds minus opponents’ rebounds) at plus-1.0.
UMaine tops the league in steals (8.1 per game) behind individual leader Edwards (2.2 spg), while Allison and Fraser rank 1-2 in blocked shot average with 1.7 and 1.6, respectively.
The Bears also must take better care of the ball and cut down on turnovers (17.0 per game).
Woodward likes the strides his team has been making. He expects that settling into a better practice routine during conference play will enable UMaine to work more diligently on some of its shortcomings.
“This is a team that we know will keep growing and getting better,” he said. “I think they’re starting to fit together.”