The University of Maine men’s basketball program’s comeback is on its way.
What was the 334th-ranked team in offensive rating a year ago has shown marked improvement six games into the season as the Black Bears have a 4-2 record and the 83rd-ranked offense.
At the center of it is Chris Markwood, UMaine’s new head coach, a former Black Bear player and an assistant coach before stints with teams including Boston College and Vermont. His team has quickly bounced back from an abysmal 2021-22 campaign in which the program earned just six wins.
It started in game one, when UMaine traveled to Nebraska. The Black Bears hit shot after shot and a Gedi Juozapaitis 3-pointer with 13 minutes left in the game pulled UMaine within one point of the Cornhuskers after trailing by 12 at the half. Nebraska held on, but this UMaine team showed it was different.
Two games later, UMaine traveled to Boston College and left with a 69-64 victory. The upset win was huge for the team’s confidence and self realization that this Black Bears’ squad was different from years past.
“We played Nebraska and we just faced some competition in terms of physicality and athleticism. They beat us on the rebounds, and coming into the Boston game we needed to focus on those things to beat high major teams,” Juozapaitis, a fifth-year senior, said.
“Seeing we can bang with one of those higher teams helped our confidence overall,” freshman guard Jaden Clayton added.
The Black Bears’ offense has been a huge reason for their early success. UMaine is 11th in field goal percentage at 51.2 percent and 20th in the NCAA in two-point shooting percentage (59.2 percent).
Sophomore guard Kellen Tynes is the leading scorer on the Black Bears, scoring 17.8 points per game on 64.7-percent shooting, a shooting percentage good enough for 23rd in the country. Tynes, who played two seasons at Montana State before transferring to UMaine, is one of two guards in the top 30 and is also third in the county in steals per game at 3.5.
Alongside Tynes in the backcourt is Clayton. Clayton is first in America East in assists per game with 4.7 and has become close friends with Tynes, his best friend on the team and a fellow Canadian.
“I try to learn from him whenever I can,” Clayton said of Tynes. “Off the ball defensively, that’s the guy we go to for those stops. That’s the biggest thing I am trying to learn from him.”
The two guards have a big fan in their coach.
“They give us a great dynamic on the ball. You can play either at the point and anytime you can have multiple playmakers on the floor it helps offensively,” he said. “Defensively they both can guard.”
Juozapaitis, a transfer forward from Georgia Southern, is shooting 52.9 percent from three this year, 17th in the country, on 5.7 attempts a game. He stretches the floor and efficiently scores for the Black Bears, ranking third in America East in true shooting percentage, which accounts for 2-point shooting percentage, 3-point shooting and free-throw shooting.
Juozapaitis, Peter Filipovity and Ja’Shonté Wright-McLeish have gotten the majority of the minutes at the wing positions, while forwards Kristians Feierbergs, Milos Nenadic and Ata Turgut, who is slowly assimilating into the rotation after a preseason ankle injury, have gotten a lot of the minutes in the front court.
The team’s versatility is a huge advantage for UMaine, Markwood said. They’ve also gelled quickly and enjoy playing together.
“There’s still a lot of room for growth,” he said. “I’ve told our guys that the point isn’t to be perfect in November.”
On Sunday, UMaine fell to Brown 70-63, which snapped the team’s four-game winning streak. The Bears jumped out to an 8-2 lead at the beginning of the game and was able to fend off UMaine for the rest of the contest, similar to how Nebraska started on a 13-2 run, enough to earn the victory in the opening game of the season, 79-66.
The loss to Brown also exposed a weakness in the team that Markwood said the team is working tirelessly on: defense.
Defensively, UMaine is 92nd in points allowed per game at 64.2. It’s an improvement from last year’s awful 236th ranking (71.1 points per game), but Markwood thinks things can be better.
“We have to tighten up on the defensive end,” he said. “We have a chance to be a really good defensive team but we aren’t there right now.”
UMaine travels to Fordham on Wednesday before flying across the Atlantic Ocean for a game against Marist at London’s at the O2 Arena for the venue’s first college basketball game.
“Right now, we are trying to be a defensive team,” Clayton said. “Right now, we are making shots and that’s a big thing, too, being able to run the flow that coach is putting in.”
The Black Bears begin their America East schedule on Jan. 5 against the University of Massachusetts Lowell.