Snapshot from a University of Maine men’s basketball practice: Till Gloger is bent in two gulping in shallow breaths while Kevin Little has retreated to a corner, his back to the world as he sullenly chugs from a water bottle.

It is three days after the Black Bears dropped a 78-73 exhibition game at Division III Southern Maine, and the stuffy air in Orono’s Memorial Gym is thick with frustration and dread.

New coach Bob Walsh is wearing a scowl that suggests: We are all going to suffer together today.

And they do.

“Sprint to the ball!” Walsh shouts repeatedly during a defensive drill that never seems to meet his satisfaction.

“Kevin, you might as well just go home because all you’re doing is making your teammates have to run,” he scolds after Little, a quick freshman, moves at half speed through his assignment and then fails to box out on a rebound.


Soon 10 players are paired up on the baseline. They are told they must complete a punishing relay of sorts, each team of two sprinting the length of the court 96 times in 10 minutes.

Freshman Aaron Calixte, who appeared to turn his ankle late in the practice, begs off, saying he’s in too much pain to run. Walsh asks him twice if he’s sure he can’t do it. Calixte sheepishly walks to a stationary bike, where he pedals slowly while his teammates take their medicine.

Little, at 6-foot, 160 pounds, has an easy stride and would have no problem completing the task. Walsh pairs him with Gloger, a 6-8, 220-pound post player who is anything but fluid once in motion. It is a losing battle and the horn sounds before all runners have finished. So now they are told to complete six laps in 33 seconds; again, Gloger is one of the stragglers. Now they get 35 seconds, and finally all get safely across the line and convulse into a groaning mass.

Gloger and Little are taking the brunt of Walsh’s scorn this day. You would assume they had played particularly poorly against Southern Maine. Yet Gloger led the way for the Black Bears with 23 points and 19 rebounds. Little was a spark off the bench, scoring 13,

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Walsh had said after an earlier practice. “We’re still trying to develop a habit here. Conditioning is of huge importance to us and our program, and we’re not where we need to be.”

You get the feeling that Walsh knows this is an understatement. Maine went 29-59 the previous three seasons, culminating in the dismissal of Coach Ted Woodward after 10 years. The program never has reached the NCAA tournament.


Walsh, who spent the previous nine seasons coaching Division III Rhode Island College, has been called on to change that. First, though, he must turn around a frame of mind, an acceptance of losing. And that may be the most difficult challenge in his profession.

There is one immediate sign of hope, however. The Black Bears respond to their hellish week of practice by routing Division III Husson 98-58 in their final exhibition.


The Walsh Era officially begins Saturday with a 4:30 p.m. tipoff at one of the meccas of the sport, Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, home of the Butler Bulldogs. This is where the climactic scenes in “Hoosiers” were filmed. It is a cozy old barn in the best sense of that word and routinely is a magnet for 7,800 locals who want to enjoy the state’s favorite pastime.

If Maine is indeed on some mystical underdog, movie-worthy journey, this is precisely where it should begin.

But the journey detours wildly from Hinkle. Maine’s next stop is at something called New Jersey Tech. There will be plenty of games at lonely basketball outposts like Northern Illinois and Long Island-Brooklyn along the way. Even Maine’s home games, at the sparkling new Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, drew an average of only 1,200 fans last winter.


Walsh, with his small-college background, is prepared for the slog. He is appreciative of the opportunity to finally get his first Division I head coaching job (the 42-year-old New Yorker was previously an assistant at San Diego and Providence College), but is not awed by the experience.

“I drive in every day and I see the big ‘M’ and I’m like, ‘I’m really lucky and proud, and it’s cool to be a part of this school, this athletic program, Division I certainly. But a milestone moment? I wouldn’t go that far,” he said.

“I just want fans to appreciate the way we defend. I hope they’ll leave the Cross Center every night saying, ‘Man, I just love how hard that team competes.’ ”

That would be a good start. Maine allowed 82.9 points per game last season and finished with a 6-23 record. Defensive intensity was rarely evident.


Zarko Valjarevic is the lone scholarship senior this year. The Serbian chose to return after last year’s debacle, even while teammates Dimitry Coronel and Xavier Pollard opted to transfer. Kilian Cato decided to forgo his senior year to remain in his native Finland.


Valjarevic said pointedly he believes in finishing what he started.

The guard, who averaged 11.3 points last season, is the Black Bears’ best natural scorer. But he has noticed the emphasis on defense this fall, and approves of this message.

“I believe we work the hardest in the whole (America East) conference. I think that’s going to show during the season,” Valjarevic said. “Since Day One, (Walsh) set up the new standards that we weren’t used to. But that’s what it takes to build the championship culture we’re trying to build. They ask a lot of us. They give back a lot as well.”

Walsh wants his players to compete for every inch of the court, on offense but more importantly on defense. He is not sure how much progress his team will make in his debut year but when his system is fully implemented, it will put a premium on defensive pressure and an attacking offense. He likes to use a deep rotation. Last season 11 of his Rhode Island College players averaged at least 10 minutes per game. In his nine seasons there, no one exceeded 31 per contest.

“Practice is really important to us, and I want guys to know that if they show up and compete and show toughness in practice that they’re going to earn playing time. If you only play six or seven guys, those other seven guys who show up every day and compete are going to lose a little bit of faith, and they’re going to stop showing up and competing every day and practice is going to suffer,” Walsh said.

“Maybe I’m a nice guy. I want to give everybody a chance. Maybe I’ve always just had 10 or 11 really good players. I don’t know.”



There are 15 players on Maine’s roster. Three are walk-ons. Two others are freshmen.

It is apparent when watching Walsh conduct practice that he has to do a lot of remedial instruction. He stopped one session to tell his players why they shouldn’t save a basketball heading out of bounds under their basket, a lesson usually learned in grammar school. He’s had to explain to one young guard why he should use a bounce pass to connect with a post player after driving into the paint, and admonishing another not to try to dribble a loose ball, but to stop and pick it up.

He’s a keen observer of body language.

“Don’t put your hands up and don’t look at me funny,” he barked at defiant walk-on guard C.J. Ward one afternoon.

“Till, I swear we can get you in the post if you just work. It’s got to start there. Demand it,” he implored Gloger, a junior.


This willingness to confront veterans and newcomers alike is not lost on Walsh’s players.

“Everyone’s held accountable,” junior guard Shaun Lawton said. “I don’t feel like we’re used to playing as hard as they demand.”

Walsh, despite his evident exasperation at times in practice, said he’s confident that his team will be well-prepared for the Butler game. He knows not every offensive and defensive scheme will be perfectly implemented, but the basics will be there. As will the emotion.

“I’ll be juiced,” Walsh said of walking onto a famous court for his Maine debut. “There’s always a sense of pride when you go into another team’s building with your team. That’s a reflection of who you are. It will be a little bit emotional, certainly. But you won’t notice it.

“This is about our program and our team. It’s not about me.”

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