BANGOR, Maine — One area of most concern for the University of Maine men’s basketball team during its recent struggles has been its presence in the low post.
The injury-riddled Black Bears routinely have fielded a lineup with three or even four guards against more traditional and taller opposing front lines. While that disparity hasn’t been reflected in rebounding statistics, as UMaine is being outboarded by just two per game, it has been seen in other areas.
Opponents generally are getting better shots, with a .469 field-goal percentage, and bigger front lines can wear down the Black Bears over 40 minutes. UMaine has been outscored by 93 points after intermission in its 21 games.
Thursday night’s 74-63 loss to New Hampshire was a case in point. UMaine trailed 33-27 at intermission before the Wildcats outscored the Black Bears 30-16 over the first 12 minutes of the second half to build a 20-point cushion.
But some help may be on the way for UMaine.
Not only did 6-foot-7 freshman Andrew Fleming of South Paris come off the bench against UNH to see his first action since Jan. 2 after suffering strep throat and an ankle injury, 6-8 Vincent Eze has started to emerge as another formidable frontcourt threat for the Bears.
Fleming, a former Oxford Hills High School star and a three-time America East rookie of the week, scored six points and grabbed three rebounds in 24 minutes against UNH despite practicing Wednesday for the first time since being injured during a 98-73 loss to Columbia.
“I saw a kid who hasn’t practiced in three weeks who’s dying to get out there for his teammates, but a couple of times I took him out because he looked like he was about to collapse,” said UMaine coach Bob Walsh.
“He’s a battler, he’s a fighter and he’s a good player. I thought in his second tour of duty in the first half he kind of got comfortable and aggressive and made some plays. As the game wore on he certainly got fatigued and I probably left him out there too long.”
UNH coach Bill Herrion prepared for the UMaine game in part by watching game tapes of Fleming in anticipation of his possible return.
“He’s a really good player,” said the Wildcats’ 11th-year head coach. “He’s going to have a great career here at Maine. When he’s a junior and a senior everyone’s going to look back and say, ‘OK, why didn’t we take that kid?’”
Walsh hopes Fleming will be able to continue his progression toward basketball normalcy Sunday when UMaine (5-16 overall, 1-5 in AE play) visits the University at Albany (11-9, 2-3 AE) for a 2 p.m. game.
“I see a good player who’s got a chance to be a great player who’s everything we want in his approach to the game and his mindset,” said Walsh, “but we’ve got to get him some reps out there in practice.”
Eze, a redshirt freshman from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, stepped into the breach with Fleming sidelined and scored in double figures in four of UMaine’s last five games, averaging 9.8 points and 7.2 rebounds in 29.8 minutes per game during that span.
“I know we’re not getting the results we want but at the same time we’ve still got to go back to practice and work on the things we need to do to get better and hopefully get the rest of the guys healthy,” said Eze.
Eze’s recent surge has increased his season averages to 5.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in 18.8 minutes per game.
“He’s played with a more consistent energy the last couple of weeks where he’s more vocal, he’s more alive, he’s more energetic,” said Walsh. “I think that’s a comfort level. He’s not trying to just feel his way out there.
“He’s continued to make great progress as an individual player and I think he can be a terrific player for us,” Walsh added.