The America East men’s basketball semifinals were on tap for Wednesday evening, and as Vermont, Maryland Baltimore County, Hartford and Binghamton continued their quests to qualify for the NCAA Division I tournament, the University of Maine was in a familiar position.
For the 17th straight year, the Black Bears were watching the semifinals from the sidelines.
UMaine has not won a conference tournament game since 2005 nor has it ever qualified for the NCAA tourney. This year the Black Bears failed to qualify for postseason play at all after finishing last among the nine teams eligible for America East’s eight-school playoffs.
That came as UMaine managed just three victories against NCAA Division I opponents during a 2021-22 campaign that concluded with a 6-23 record overall, 3-13 in America East.
The Black Bears were ranked 353rd out of 358 teams in the NCAA Division I NET Rankings used to select and seed teams for the NCAA tournament. Only Lamar, Mississippi Valley State, Eastern Illinois, Delaware State and IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) were ranked lower.
After UMaine played just nine games during the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 issues, the Black Bears returned with nine new players and a new coaching staff under fourth-year head coach Richard Barron — a major reboot.
Further stymied by injuries that sidelined veterans Stephane Ingo and LeChaun DuHart for significant stretches of the winter the reboot didn’t work, and with four games left in the regular season the university and its men’s basketball coach parted ways with assistant coach Jai Steadman taking over for the rest of the year. Barron concluded his tenure with a 21-75 record.
While the roster was different, the Black Bears’ struggles were nothing new. UMaine finished last in the conference in scoring for the third straight season, averaging 61.4 points per game.
Not only was it unproductive, but it attracted a scant fan base for a sport that drew thousands of attendees to arenas around the state for the high school basketball tournament and continues to draw healthy crowds for a UMaine women’s basketball program that will play in its seventh consecutive America East championship game on Friday.
The UMaine men’s basketball program is bordering on irrelevant in the state’s sports scene, but there may be a path forward during the next few years. It begins with the next head coach.
Athletic administrator Ken Ralph has said he wants a coach who wants to be in Orono, and believes he has found that in such recent hirings as football coach Jordan Stevens and men’s ice hockey coach Ben Barr as well as last March’s four-year contract extension for women’s basketball coach Amy Vachon.
Is there a similar coach to be found for the men’s basketball program? Chris Markwood would seem like a great fit.
The 2000 Maine Gatorade Player of the Year at South Portland High School, he first played at Notre Dame before returning to his home state to play his final two years of college basketball at UMaine, where he was a team captain as a senior during the 2004-05 campaign.
Markwood has spent the last 16 years as a Division I assistant coach, beginning with five years at UMaine followed by three years at Vermont, seven years at Northeastern and the current season at Boston College.
He is regarded as a top-flight recruiter in the Northeast and nationally, and Markwood’s experiences at two successful mid-major programs as well as an ACC school during the last 11 years should give him a wealth of directions to consider for his alma mater if he and his family — including wife and former UMaine guard Ashley Underwood — are interested in leaving Boston and returning home for a second time.
The next coach could inherit some promising young talent. Four UMaine players earned America East Rookie of the Week honors spanning nine weeks this winter.
Freshman guard Sam Ihekwoaba was a five-time honoree while first-year center Kristians Feierbergs was a two-time selection, with both named to the America East All-Rookie Team.
Two other Black Bear freshmen, guards Byron Ireland and Novak Perovic, also earned weekly honors, leaving those four first-years poised to play larger roles next fall after seeing sometimes sporadic playing time during their debut seasons on the Orono campus.
That is if they choose to remain at UMaine in the age of the transfer portal, a free agency of sorts that might prove inviting to players seeking to compete at a higher level.
A good recruiter could also tap into the list of players interested in changing schools to seek out those who began their careers in a major program but might covet the additional playing time they could earn at a mid-major school like UMaine.
While the state of Maine hasn’t been a prolific producer of Division I talent, it’s important to attract those players that are at or near mid-major quality by the time they graduate from high school.
That might not include the likes of big men Cooper Flagg of Nokomis Regional High School or J.P. Estrella of South Portland, both are on track for major-college basketball futures. But it’s important to maintain a connection between the state’s high school and Division I basketball communities, which wasn’t the case this winter with no Mainers on the 15-player roster.
It’s good for both entities.
Finally, the longer-term prospect of a new on-campus arena to host basketball as part of UMaine’s $110 million athletics facilities plan announced last year offers the potential for the student body to re-engage with the Black Bears after being reluctant to travel to Bangor for home games.
One ultimate goal of the on-campus facility would be to build the type of crowd support that has become much of the attraction for fans and recruits at the University of Vermont, the model for the Northeast’s mid-major programs.
But that takes winning, too.