ORONO — In the second year of Bob Walsh’s tenure as the Maine men’s basketball coach, his team played at the don’t-blink tempo he wants.

The third year will be devoted to balancing pace with poise.

The Black Bears completed an 8-22 season with a 99-82 loss at Vermont on March 2 in the America East quarterfinals. That was five more victories than in Walsh’s first year.

Maine ranked third in the nation at 80.7 possessions per game. Six of its eight victories came when the Black Bears exceeded 78 possessions.

The bad news was that Maine wasn’t nearly as efficient as its opponents in all those trips down the court. The Black Bears ranked 306th out of 351 Division I teams at .941 points per possession, and 312th by allowing 1.076 points per possession.

When injuries eroded Maine’s depth, the team wore down, losing its final nine games.

“I think our pace really helped us,” Walsh said. “But then we’ve also got to be mature enough mentally, tough enough physically, to guard while we’re doing that and to buy into the fact that’s how we’re going to win.”

Teams feasted on Maine’s relatively scrawny interior defenders. Maine allowed 47.7 points per game on two-point baskets to rank 347th in the nation. It didn’t help that 42.5 percent of Maine’s minutes were played by true freshmen, all of whom could use more time in the weight room.

So putting on strength will be the first order of business this offseason. Each Black Bear has an individualized workout program, with benchmarks to meet in strength, conditioning, body composition and more by the time the next school year begins.

“We’ve got to become more dynamic athletes. We’ve got to be able to withstand the rigors of the entire season without getting injured,” Walsh said. “It’s a crucial offseason from a sports performance perspective.”

Maine was led in scoring by freshman Issac Vann at 16.4 points, although he was limited by injury to 17 games. Sophomore Kevin Little was next at 14.7 points, but he missed seven games. When the Black Bears were healthy, they went 6-4 immediately after Christmas break.

The Black Bears figure to have more depth next year, graduating only Till Gloger and Shaun Lawton and replacing them with redshirt freshman Vincent Eze, junior transfer Wesley Myers, incoming freshman Andrew Fleming of Oxford Hills High School and one more scholarship player to be added.

Eze, at 6-foot-8 and 202 pounds, is the kind of physical interior defender that Maine has lacked, although he, too, needs to add bulk. Myers is a 6-2 wing player who averaged 8.2 points in two seasons at Niagara. Fleming, the 6-7 Gatorade Maine high school player of the year, figures to be a face-up power forward who will help the Black Bears on the glass.

That trio will join a nucleus of seniors Garet Beal, Troy Reid-Knight and Marko Pirovic, juniors Little and Aaron Calixte and five sophomores who gained experience – and took their lumps – this winter.

Vann looks to be the budding star in the group. The 6-6 forward showed an impressive variety of graceful offensive moves, with the ability to score in transition, drive to the rim, pull up for jump shots and even knock down 3-pointers. He also averaged a team-leading 5.9 free-throw attempts per game, converting 78 percent. Walsh would like to see Vann become proficient at scoring when coming off screens. If he develops a catch-and-shoot component, he’ll be one of the toughest players to guard in America East.

“He’s a scorer and he’s got a great way of producing without trying too hard. We think he’s got a chance to be a terrific player for us for a long time,” Walsh said.

There will be plenty of shots to go around for Maine. The pace of play dictates that. It also dictates that the other team will have an abundance of opportunities, of course, and that’s where the Black Bears must get better.

Playing fast can make the Black Bears difficult to prepare for (among America East teams, only UMass-Lowell also ranked in the top 20 nationally in possessions), but opponents who have bigger and faster athletes will happily adjust if it means they can score easy baskets. Only one of the top 20 teams nationally in possessions made the NCAA tournament.

“It’s the way we want to play. The athletes we can get fit it. The guys want to play that way. It’s the way I’ve always coached,” Walsh said.

“The huge step for us is to be able to get stops in the half court. We talk about it all the time. We’re going to play more possessions. It’s going to create more situations where we’ve got to dig in and sometimes we’re going to be tired.”

 


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