Fifth-year University of Maine women’s basketball coach Amy Vachon chuckled when she was informed that her inexperienced team was picked to finish second in America East by the league’s coaches in the preseason poll.
“I don’t know what they are thinking,” she quipped.
Three non-conference losses into the season, one could make a valid argument that the Black Bears — winners of three of the last four regular season titles — have indeed been overrated by the league’s coaches.
But you just don’t know what this team is going to look like in late February when the tournament starts.
After all, 10 of the 13 players are freshmen and sophomores.
Think back to the 2019-20 season, when the team was decimated by injuries but Vachon was still able to steer her patchwork group to a second-place finish and a berth in the America East Tournament championship game, which was canceled due to COVID-19.
What we do know is the four departed players combined for 78.5 percent of the 3-pointers made last season, 60.4 percent of the assists, 60.3 percent of the points scored and 60.2 percent of the steals.
The school’s fifth all-time leading scorer in guard Blanca Millan (1.974 points), who was also second in career steals (324) and third in 3-pointers made (216), has moved on. So too have point guard Dor Saar, the first player in school history with over 1,000 points and 500 assists, power forward and 2018-19 league rebounding leader Fanny Wadling, and 3-point specialist Kelly Fogarty.
But UMaine, 17-3 a year ago, does return two all-conference players in first team guard Anne Simon, a junior, and two-time second team forward Maeve Carroll, a graduate student.
Simon was the America East Rookie of the Year two years ago and a second team pick.
The only other returnee who saw double-digit minutes of playing time a year ago, sophomore Spanish guard Alba Orois (16 minutes per game), has certainly shown she is ready to fill Saar’s point guard spot by averaging 10 points and six assists through the first three games while shooting 50 percent from the floor.
There are a lot of similarities between Orois and Saar.
Orois isn’t as polished as Saar but she is just as fearless and is quicker. She has no issue having the ball in her hands and directing the offense.
She has committed 12 turnovers but UMaine has faced three quality, veteran teams in Nebraska, Providence and Delaware and she is averaging a team-high 39.7 minutes per game.
Simon, who averaged 12.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game last year, and Carroll (10.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 3.2 assists) have struggled shooting but are still averaging 17 and 12.3 ppg, respectively. Simon is also averaging 6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2 steals while Carroll has averaged 7 rebounds and 5.3 assists.
Both are going to have to adapt to being the primary focus of opposing defenses.
The 5-foot-8 Simon is a dynamic slasher who can also hit the three. She is averaging 7.7 3-pointers taken per game compared with 3.5 a year ago.
Carroll continues to cleverly maneuver past bigger post players to score inside.
But Carroll is going to have to find the delicate balance between being an aggressive inside presence and not fouling. She is too important to the team to be sitting on the bench in foul trouble.
Junior Anna Kahelin, a 5-11 guard, would have been a shutdown defender and an effective rebounder but has been lost for the season with a second knee injury.
The other five players who have received the most playing time so far have been 5-11 freshman guard Sera Hodgson (26.3 minutes per game), 5-10 sophomore guard-forward Caroline Bornemann (24 mpg), 5-5 sophomore guard OIivia Rockwood (18 mpg), 5-8 freshman guard Bailey Wilborn (13.3 mpg) and 6-2 junior forward Abbe Laurence (11.5 mpg).
Laurence filled in impressively for the injured Carroll early last season with back-to-back 10 point-games. She is a hard-nosed rebounder who can score in the paint but is still getting into game shape after May knee surgery.
Hodgson and Bornemann are athletic and versatile and could become important pieces to the puzzle as they gain experience and confidence.
Hodgson is a welll-rounded 3-point specialist with good defensive instincts while Bornemann appears to be a reliable rebounder and defender who is also capable of scoring inside.
Rockwood and Wilborn are quick, tenacious guards who are comfortable with the ball in their hands. They aren’t afraid to shoot threes or penetrate.
Paula Gallego is a 6-1 freshman guard who can shoot outside or play in the post; 5-11 freshman forward Penelope Castillo is a hard-working post player; 5-10 freshman forward Adrianna Smith can supply a physical presence in the paint; 6-2 sophomore forward Katie White can rebound and produce points inside and 5-8 sophomore Lexi Mittelstadt from Wilton is a reliable guard.
This is an entertaining team to watch. It plays with a lot of energy and spirit.
The question is can it receive enough consistent scoring to complement Simon and Carroll?
Defense is a trademark of the Black Bears and this will eventually be a good defensive team when the players gain experience. It should also hold its own on the boards.
A very demanding 11-game non-conference schedule will be beneficial, although wins will be tough to come by. You know Vachon and her staff will get the most out of their players.
And America East is, at best, a mid-level mid-major conference.
This team is more likely to finish third or fourth than second but it could evolve into a dangerous tournament team that no one wants to play.
Delaware coach Natasha Adair said it wouldn’t surprise her if UMaine reaches its seventh straight America East championship game.
“They are well-coached. Once that chemistry builds, once that maturation process sets in, they will continue to do what they’ve done for years,” Adair said. “They are very disciplined and very talented.”
UMaine travels to face 3-0 Yale on Friday at 6 p.m. and Boston University on Sunday at 2 p.m.