BANGOR, Maine — The word of the moment within the Husson University men’s basketball program is progression.

Progression as in day-to-day improvement throughout preseason, progression as in using the nonconference schedule to build a resume for postseason consideration and momentum for North Atlantic Conference play.

And progression toward the ultimate goal, not only winning another conference title and returning to the NCAA Division III Tournament but experiencing success once the Eagles get there.

“We’ve had some really good success and won championships, so every time we step on the floor I think we’re going to face teams with a heightened level of intensity,” said 25th-year Husson head coach Warren Caruso, who has guided the Eagles to six NAC crowns in the last nine years. “That’s a challenge for us to raise our game and do things better early in the year so by the end of the year we have a higher finishing place.

“That’s what we’ve talked about, how do we get to that higher finishing place that gets us over the top to winning a championship and then to get to the NCAAs and advance?”

Some prominent tools are in place to facilitate that process, led by preseason All-American senior guard Raheem Anderson. The reigning NAC player of the year and conference tournament MVP from Miramar, Florida, averaged 26.3 points per game last winter along with 4.6 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in leading Husson to a 21-7 record and an NCAA berth where the Eagles fell to eventual national champion Babson College 92-76 in the opening round after trailing by just one point at intermission.

Anderson, who was granted a medical hardship waiver to return to the team for a fifth year due to missing most of his freshman season due to injury, ranks second in school history with 1,881 career points. That total trails only Raymond Alley’s 2,657 points in a Husson uniform.

“He’s really matured as an individual and taken a big step as far as being a vocal leader,” said Caruso. “Certainly he’s got special talents, and any time you return someone of that caliber you’ve got to be excited. We’re looking forward to seeing him play at a higher level than he’s played in previous seasons with us.”

Two other key veterans are junior forward Justin Martin of Winslow and senior guard Mitch Worcester of Washburn.

Martin is the reigning NAC defensive player of the year after leading the conference with 70 blocked shots — with a school-record nine against Babson — to go with 10.3 rebounds and 7.9 points per contest last season.

“Justin just affects the game in a lot of ways,” said Caruso. “I think you’ll see a more rounded game from him. He’ll still be a great defender and a great rebounder but he’ll play a bigger role offensively because we need that from him.”

Worcester found his groove late last season, averaging 19.7 points over the Eagles’ last 10 games while shooting 42 percent from beyond the 3-point arc and 83.5 percent from the free-throw line. He earned NAC all-tournament honors after scoring 24 points and grabbing six rebounds as the Eagles defeated Thomas College of Waterville 89-67 in the conference final.

“Mitch brings a really nice all-around game that complements the other two very well,” said Caruso of Worcester, who averaged 14.0 points and 3.2 rebounds per game overall last winter.

Expected to complement that trio are four sophomores — forward Justin Smith of Bangor, centers Bruce St. Peter of Ellsworth and Babfemi Onigbanjo and guard Jake Black of Hampden — who all gained considerable experience as first-year players for the Eagles last season.

Caruso describes his recruiting class as one of the best he and his staff have brought to Husson during his coaching tenure.

That contingent includes 6-3 guard Kyanti Blyden, who played the last two years at Broward College in Davie, Florida; 6-3 freshman point guard Corey Kaiser and 6-6 freshman forward Cole Thomas, both from Orlando, Florida; 6-1 freshman guard D.J. Bussey, who averaged 24 points per game last winter as a postgraduate at the New York International Institute; and 6-7 freshman center Coty Hackett, the program’s first recruit from Idaho.

Also expected to contribute are two former Pine Tree State high school standouts in Bangor Daily News All-Maine selection Justin Thompson from Schenck of East Millinocket and fellow wing Jarrod Chase of Brooklin, whose buzzer-beating 3-pointer lifted George Stevens Academy to the Class C state championship last winter.

Husson was a unanimous pick to repeat as NAC champion in a preseason coaches’ poll, but Caruso expects what he considers an underrated conference to be even deeper and more competitive this winter.

“What it does is make everyone better,” he said. “When you go into battle every night and have to scratch and claw and execute, by the end of the season everyone’s battle tested.”

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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...