A 10-1 start and a national ranking for the Bentley University men’s basketball team is at most a modest surprise to two of its key contributors, former Maine high school standouts Zach Gilpin of Hampden and Chris Hudson of Hodgdon.
“I think we’re off to a great start so far and I’m really excited about what’s ahead,” said Hudson, who led Hodgdon to the 2014 Class D state champion and then attended prep school at Williston-Northampton (Massachusetts) before enrolling at Bentley, where he is a junior forward.
“We played well last year and had a good core returning so we were really able to develop over the offseason and it’s definitely shown a lot.”
Hudson and Gilpin, a 6-foot-5 senior, represent two-thirds of the starting frontcourt for Bentley, a NCAA Division II program that has mined Maine’s high school basketball talent for decades.
Beginning with Charlie Wootton, the 6-8 center who led Camden-Rockport High School to the 1974 Class B state championship before twice earning All-New England and All-America honors at Bentley, the road from Pine Tree State basketball courts to scholarship opportunities at the highly regarded business school has been well traveled.
Mike Mastropaolo of Falmouth, the 1997 Mr. Maine Basketball, Jeff Holmes of Cheverus of Portland, Sam Leclerc of Winthrop and Andrew Shaw of Thornton Academy in Saco also made their way to Bentley. So have 2011 Mr. Basketball Tyler McFarland of Rockport and Camden Hills, Keegan Hyland of South Portland, Andrew Furness of Wells and 2015 Mr. Maine Basketball Kyle Bouchard of Houlton.
Now Gilpin and Hudson helped 28th-year head coach Jay Lawson and the Falcons celebrate Christmas ranked ranked 15th in the latest NABC Division III coaches poll.
“People always say to me, ‘You really love Maine,’ and I just say there just happens to be some exceptional players that are right for our level there and when you talk about Zach and Chris now, it’s the same thing,” said Lawson.
Hudson, the reigning Northeast-10 Conference player of the week, is averaging 15.5 points and a team-best 8.9 rebounds this season while shooting 56.3 percent from the field, second best in the NE-10.
“Chris has emerged into one of the conference’s best players,” said Lawson. “When he left Hodgdon, they won the state championship but I would say he was a quiet player in Maine. I remember watching him play AAU and can honestly tell you that in all my years that Chris is among the top five players who have improved the most from when they walked in the door here to now.”
Hudson credits much of his improvement to physical maturity. He has grown from 6-4, 170 pounds as a high school player to 6-5 1/2, 205 pounds.
“Chris plays very well at both ends of the court,” said Lawson. “He can guard a variety of people, he’s an exceptional rebounder, he’s got a great motor and great speed to run up and down the floor, and he’s a threat to score the ball in pretty much every way a forward needs to score — and he’s lefty and that always helps, too.”
Gilpin, named Maine’s 2014 Gatorade Maine Player of the Year after leading Hampden Academy to one Class A state championship and three regional titles during his high school career, arrived at Bentley after spending a prep year at Bridgton Academy. He is now a third-year starter and one of only two seniors on this year’s roster.
“I haven’t had many guys in my 30-plus years of coaching at Bentley that have been such a positive influence on their teammates and their coaches,” said Lawson. “Zach’s just a person you want to be around every single day and he’s very passionate about basketball and all of us who love the game like being around other people who are like that.”
Gilpin averaged 13.2 points as a sophomore despite playing with a torn labrum that required offseason surgery, then came back to score 11.9 points per game last year.
He’s on the comeback trail again after enduring a sprained ankle earlier this season. He’s averaging 9.9 points and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 51 percent from the field overall, 50 percent on 3-pointers and 81 percent from the free-throw line.
“One improvement I’ve noticed a lot in my game this year is moving without the ball,” said Gilpin. “Another big thing is helping my team run the offense and making quicker decisions on whether to shoot or pass or drive, making the best decisions for the team.”
Gilpin arrived on campus in the fall of 2015 as McFarland — Bentley’s career scoring leader with 2,118 points — and fellow 1,000-point scorers Hyland and Furness were seniors on the most recent Bentley team to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
“Zach’s progressed each year and done so through some adversity,” said Lawson, “and he’s a double-figure scorer and you can never have enough guys who are consistent double-figure scorers.”