Justin Thompson (21) of Husson University dribbles up the court during a March 2021 basketball game against Saint Joseph's College at Newman Gym in Bangor. Credit: Tyler Hewey / Husson Athletics

The Husson University men’s basketball team has a unique opportunity to build off an undefeated season this winter.

Granted, the 2020-21 campaign was no normal procession due to COVID-19. But the Eagles were able to practice through most of the traditional basketball season from October into March save for some down time late in the first semester.

Then they played 10 games — eight against in-state rivals — during the second semester and went 10-0.

Graduate student Justin Thompson of East Millinocket, a fifth-year player on the Husson University men’s basketball team. Credit: Ernie Clark / BDN

While there was no trophy for the Eagles to raise at the end of that run, the experience created a foundation most Division III programs weren’t able to build during the heart of the pandemic — for what Husson now hopes is a successful pursuit of the 2022 North Atlantic Conference title and an NCAA tournament berth.

“It definitely set the tone for this year,” said Husson graduate swingman Justin Thompson of East Millinocket, who along with senior guard D.J. Bussey are fifth-year veterans on the current roster after all players were granted an extra year of eligibility due to the coronavirus.

“Especially with us knowing that pretty much everybody who was here last year was going to be back, we battled against each other every day in practice and got a lot from those 10 games. That was a big confidence boost, and now we have a good base to come out running this year.”

Husson was a unanimous preseason pick by NAC coaches to finish first in the East region of a two-division, 12-school conference that has added four New York schools since it last crowned a champion in 2020.

And with a 17-man roster that includes 11 players who are juniors or older, the Eagles boast considerable roster stability.

“There’s a lot of familiarity within the program and with the expectations, which is always a great starting place for us,” said Warren Caruso, who began his 28th season as the Eagles’ head coach with a 510-239 record. “Last year’s success, and forget about the record but just the fact we were able to play when a lot of schools weren’t, really helped the development of some of our young guys going into this year.”

Senior guard D.J. Bussey of Peoria, Arizona, a fifth-year member of the Husson University men’s basketball team. Credit: Ernie Clark / BDN

Husson boasts experienced depth throughout its lineup. Bussey, a 1,000-point scorer, heads up a guard contingent that also features seniors Justice Kendall and J Thomas, junior Derek Collin of Mount Desert and sophomore Jeremy Moronta.

The frontcourt includes 6-foot-8 junior Cam Wood of Winthrop and 6-9 classmate Jared Balser of Topsham in the low post to team with 6-5 senior Brent Cunningham, 6-4 sophomore Isaac Varney of Glenburn and 6-6 Corey Humbles of Orange Park, Florida, the lone freshman on the squad.

Then there’s the 6-4 Thompson, the former Schenck High School standout who has found a home on the wing helping to link the guards with the big men while teaming with Bussey to provide leadership and scoring punch. He’s also closing in on 1,000 career points at Husson.

“I really credit D.J. and J.T. and the maturity they’ve developed, particularly through last year and into this year,” Caruso said. “They’ve really become leaders, vocal leaders … and their presence in the program has significantly elevated and been a big part of the success we had last year and the success I think we’re going to have this year.”

Husson’s ambitious non-conference schedule includes four opponents that played in the 2020 NCAA Tournament (Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Colby, New England College and Pomona-Pitzer, one of back-to-back games in California on Dec. 29-30).

The Eagles return to action at 1 p.m. Saturday against in-state rival St. Joseph’s College of Standish at Newman Gymnasium on the Bangor campus.

And while a NAC title and another NCAA berth — the Eagles earned seven bids to the big dance from 2009 through 2019 — remain the primary on-court objectives, a season on the brink of not playing at all has left the team grateful for each competitive opportunity they get.

“I think the most important thing is just having fun,” Bussey said. “Because of what happened last year we were just happy to have a season, and now we’re lucky to have a conference championship to play for.”

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...