BANGOR, Maine — The Husson University men’s basketball team spent Tuesday night and Wednesday morning traveling to Las Vegas for the D3Hoops.com Classic tournament.
The Eagles will arrive at the South Point Hotel and Arena for games Thursday and Friday evening from literally all parts of the country after brief holiday trips home from such locales as New York, Maryland, Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma, Arizona and Washington state in addition to Maine.
“We have nine different flights going out there and thankfully just one coming back,” Husson head coach Warren Caruso said. “That’s why we have a travel agent.
“It just didn’t seem to make any sense to fly everyone back to Bangor and then fly everyone to Vegas, particularly when we’re playing on the 27th. Originally we were supposed to play on the 28th and 29th but they moved it up a day and that complicated everything a little because now we have only one day to travel and one day to prep.”
Those travel arrangements, in this case for 7 p.m. games against nationally regarded North Central College of Naperville, Illinois, on Thursday and Ramapo College of Mahwah, New Jersey, on Friday, represent just one way Husson is working to contend more consistently with the NCAA Division III elite.
“Coach tries to put us into positions where we can prove ourselves in the eyes of the NCAA,” said sophomore forward Justin Thompson of East Millinocket, one of three Maine natives on the roster. “We’re the underdogs in most people’s eyes when we’re playing nonconference games out of state, but I like that challenge.”
Another step involves the team’s composition.
Caruso and his staff still heavily recruit the Pine Tree State. Thompson, Justin Martin of Winslow and Bruce St. Peter of Ellsworth all were prominent eastern Maine high school players before heading to Husson.
But increasingly those recruiting efforts span coast to coast as evidenced by the current roster, which includes numerous players from parts of the country where there is little or no Division III basketball.
“There’s a lot of different personalities in the locker room, for sure,” said Thompson, the former Schenck High School standout. “I think it’s good for everyone to get a taste of different cultures. For me, I’ve been in Maine my whole life and and meeting guys from other states and being able to play with guys who have played a lot of basketball in their lives and come from other areas, it’s cool.”
Geographic diversity doesn’t seem to complicate the team-building process, even for a team like Husson that has 10 freshmen and sophomores among its 14 players.
“Technology tends to lessen the effect of the geographic diversity we have,” Caruso said. “We were able to connect some of our guys before even got they here to start talking to each other. Basketball is a commonality for them and in the AAU world they’ve all traveled, so they’ve all gotten to know guys from all over the place.
“Just like any other time there’s that transition from your senior year of high school to your freshman year of college, and whether you’re making it 3,000 miles away or 30 miles away it’s still a transition.”
When merging those individuals into a singular basketball unit, the shared passion for the sport tends to enhance the process.
“We had two months to prepare,” said D.J. Bussey, a sophomore guard from Peoria, Arizona. “It was just fun to get to know everybody and experience what they’ve [gone] through and the stories they tell.”
The Eagles are off to a 6-3 start, including their first victory over instate rival Bates College since 2012 and narrow losses to Trinity, Saint Joseph’s of Maine and undefeated Worcester Polytechnic Institute — teams with a combined 27-7 record.
“We were in a position to win all three of those games but the reality is we didn’t so we’ve got some work to do,” Caruso said. “But this is a really close group with a lot of character and basketball ability to it and a tremendous upside.”
That final stretch of nonconference play begins with a 10-1 North Central team that is also receiving votes in the NCAA Division III national rankings and a 9-2 Ramapo team that reached the Division III Final Four last winter.
“It will be a good test to play those teams,” Thompson said. “We need to go out there and prove to ourselves that we can be on the same floor with those guys and do what we do best and put ourselves in position to win.”