When assessing the University of Maine men’s basketball season, there’s ammunition for both sides of any debate.
The pessimist will look at the Black Bears’ 9-22 record and 5-11 performance in America East. Those numbers were improved from a year ago — four more wins overall, two in conference play — but they produced the status quo in the league standings.
The youthful Black Bears earned the No. 8 and final seed for the postseason tournament for the fourth consecutive year and the fifth time in the last six seasons.
And while UMaine graduates only two seniors, captains Andrew Fleming and Sergio El Darwich, both were All-America East honorees. They represented 47.4 percent of the team’s scoring this season and much of its leadership.
Coach Richard Barron’s rebuilding effort remains a work in progress, but in these challenging times the instinct is to instead focus on the positive when considering the Black Bears’ future.
First, the distance between the best and worst of America East this winter was modest.
Of UMaine’s 11 regular-season conference losses, nine came by an average of 6.6 points.
That margin was similar to the six America East tournament games played before the coronavirus struck down the conference championship game between Vermont and Hartford. Those quarterfinals and semifinals were decided by an average of 8.0 points.
UMaine’s final three outings further illuminated the relatively small gap between the bottom and top of the conference ranks — back-to-back victories over No. 4 Maryland Baltimore County and at No. 3 Hartford followed by a 61-50 quarterfinal loss at No. 1 Vermont that was a three-point game with 6:54 left.
Two keys to that late-season run were the efforts of two returning players, 6-foot-8 redshirt junior forward Nedeljko Prijovic and 6-9 redshirt freshman forward Stephane Ingo.
Prijovic, who showed his defensive versatility throughout the season by guarding everyone from point guards to power forwards, was UMaine’s leading scorer late in the season. He averaged 19.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals in the final four contests.
Ingo became dominant on the backboards, leading UMaine with 11.8 rebounds per game during that same stretch to go with 8.3 points and 2.0 blocked shots.
Prijovic likely will see more defensive attention next winter but should remain a reliable scoring threat.
Ingo took a significant step forward during his first full season at UMaine, and the next step will be to add to his offensive repertoire to complement Prijovic’s outside-in game.
Another returning offensive threat will be 6-8 forward Vilgot Larsson, whose junior year ended on the injured list. He will look to develop more consistency both on the perimeter and near the rim in UMaine’s patient half-court offense.
Miks Antoms will enter his fourth year with the program as a reliable back-up big man, while redshirt sophomore forward Solomon Iluymode has shown considerable promise but has been plagued by injury.
Another big man, Veljko Radakovic, saw limited minutes as a freshman but showed his offensive potential with an 11-point blitz during a late-season game against UNH.
Ata Turgut, a 6-9 freshman from Turkey, redshirt this winter.
Redshirt sophomore guard Mykhailo Yagodin had a sluggish return to the lineup this season after playing in just one game a year ago due to injury. Known as a strong perimeter shooter, a return to form next winter could provide a significant boost to a possession-oriented offense that averaged a league-low 61.42 points per game.
Another key returning backcourt player is Ja’Shonte Wright-McLeish, who earned his way into the starting lineup as a freshman with solid defense and averaged just 1.4 turnovers in 24.2 minutes per game over UMaine’s last five contests.
Classmate Precious Okoh showed some encouraging signs when called upon to handle point-guard duties while fellow walk-on guard Taylor Schildroth of Blue Hill remains a talented long-range shooter.
Two other first-year guards, 6-6 Peter Stumer from Sweden and 6-8 forward Agah Kizilkaya from Denmark, have returned to their native countries and won’t be back at UMaine.
The Black Bears welcome several newcomers to the 2020-2021 roster, including former Mr. Maine Basketball Matthew Fleming, a 6-6 forward from Bangor, and fellow 2019 Mr. Basketball finalist Wol Maiwen, a 6-4 forward from Edward Little High School in Auburn.
Both are coming off a year of prep school, Fleming at West Point Prep in New York and Maiwen at Williston Northampton in Easthampton, Massachusetts.
Fleming, the younger brother of Andrew Fleming, shot 40 percent from the 3-point arc this winter and could help address one of UMaine’s biggest needs.
The Black Bears took 732 of their 1,693 field-goal attempts, or 43.2 percent, from beyond the arc last winter but made only 28.1 percent of those to rank 341st out of 350 Division I teams.
Also set to join the program are Randell Wiel, a 6-3 guard from the Netherlands, and Leyton Bickford, a 6-5 forward who averaged 18.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game as a senior at Sanford High School this winter.