ORONO, Maine — Injuries, revamped lineups, altered rotations and a dearth of healthy bodies in the backcourt combined to keep the University of Maine from developing any kind of identity last season.
Ironically, one of the few consistencies for the inconsistent Black Bears was their inclination to make mistakes or miss free throws at critical times, usually down the stretch of close games en route to a 7-23 season.
“We didn’t really have any huge leadership left after the great senior class we graduated last offseason  and there was really no junior class to take that up afterward,” said Ted Woodward, now entering his fifth season as the men’s head coach.
This year, the Bears are guardedly optimistic despite being picked by America East’s coaches to finish eighth in the nine-team conference.
“We wanted to increase our depth and we definitely needed to get more skill on the perimeter as far as our ballhandling and shooting and I feel we’ve definitely accomplished that with Andrew Rogers, Doran Mitchell, Ryan Martin and Jon McAllian.”
Those new faces, along with junior guards Mark Socoby of Houlton and Junior Bernal, senior Kaimondre Owes, sophomore Malachi Peay and freshman Gerald McLemore, who arrived last January and got some on-the-job experience in practice as an early signee, could turn the backcourt from weakness to strength.
“They’ve come in to fill some holes we have,” Woodward said. “We have high expectations for a lot of them to step in and contribute, but we also have guys like Mark, Junior and Kaimondre, who are leaders.”
The Bears return 83.8 percent of their points, 73.9 percent of rebounds, 89.4 percent of their assists, and 92.2 percent of steals despite losing five players, which also makes Woodward feel much better about his squad’s experience level.
The Bears are in a hurry
The emphasis this year will be on speed from the backcourt to the frontcourt. The Bears have lacked a consistent fast break and had tempo dictated to them more often than not.
“We’ve been doing a LOT of running,” said sophomore forward Sean McNally of Gardiner. “We’ve changed to a motion offense so teams can’t just settle in and know what plays we’re running.
“We had a few games with a lot of turnovers last year, so we’re hoping having a better transition game will cut that down considerably.”
McNally added nine pounds to his 230-pound, 6-foot-7 body without sacrificing quickness.
“We’re going to be moving a lot more and making those passes we tried to make last year,” McNally said. “I think we’re going to have the capability to go eight or nine deep for spurts so it’ll be a lot easier to go hard as long as we can because of our depth.”
Hearing McNally talk about running and the transition game is music to Bernal’s ears.
“Any time you have a big man running down the floor and can just throw the ball to him, that helps stretch defenses out,” said the 6-5 former Maine Central Institute Postgraduate player. “Our big guys run the floor well and we want to make that one of our strengths, so we’re running a lot more and pushing the ball.”
Securing the perimeter
Woodward’s all-out effort to restock the backcourt was also done in hopes of improving and shoring up Maine’s ability to shoot from beyond the arc.
High school sharpshooters and NEWS All-Maine choices like McAllian of Bangor and Martin of Wayne, along with Mitchell and McLemore, are expected to take and hit open 3-point shots.
“Last year, they had a lack of shooting so I think I can bring more of that,” McAllian said. “I think I can sprint down and spot up for a 3-pointer. Coach said if I shoot consistently, I’ll get some floor time.”
Last season, Maine shot 33.1 percent (160-for-483) from 3-point range.
“We shoot a lot of 3-pointers, but it wasn’t something we used as successfully last year,” Bernal said. “We still want to work things inside out, but I think if our shooting’s better, it should make things better for our inside game.”
Guys like McNally and 6-7 small forward Troy Barnies, a sophomore from Auburn, should benefit if that happens.
“We just didn’t get the ball inside enough for the shooters to be open when we kicked it back out to them, so hopefully this will open up the middle for us big men,” McNally said.
Barnies, who averaged just 3.3 points and 2.3 rebounds in 13.4 minutes per game last season, may improve greatly.
“We have guys who can fill point guard and wing positions we wanted,” Woodward said. “That allows us more flexibility to move Troy more to his natural position as a straight-ahead ‘four’ man who can do some things, using his athleticism and versatility, to go between the perimeter and post.”
Sizing it up
The loss of 6-9, 310-pound center Brian Andre hurts Maine’s size, but McNally and Maine’s veteran guards are confident they can continue to be a solid rebounding team.
“Brian was a big guy, but I think we still have size and big guards who rebound well,” said the 6-5 Bernal, who averaged 10.8 points and 4.7 rebounds a game last year. “I think two of us [Bernal and Socoby, 5.7 rpg] were in the top three for rebounding guards, and McNally moves real well inside and is bigger, but just as quick.”
In short, the Bears’ success this season depends largely on how quickly and smoothly they develop an offensive rhythm and rotation, a consistent style, substitutions, defensive intensity, and identity.