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Amidst Maine’s rebuilding challenge, there is hope

December 12, 2014 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – The long road back for Maine has started, and it has been challenging and at times quite painful. It’s not going to be an easy road back to relevance and contention. Along the way, though, there is reason for hope, and that was evident in a few ways Thursday night when the Black Bears lost at Boston College.

The fall from relevance in America East was a steep one for Maine. In 2010-11, they started off conference play at 8-1 and looked well on their way to the top seed in the conference tournament. The bottom fell out quickly, though, as they then lost six in a row before losing to Hartford in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. They never won more than six conference games after that, and Ted Woodward was let go as head coach after last season. In his place is Bob Walsh, who had a great run at Rhode Island College.

The cupboard isn’t bare, which is a bit surprising considering the prior coach didn’t voluntarily leave, as oftentimes it is in those situations that a new head coach would have good talent right away. Walsh and his staff scrambled to get Aaron Calixte late, and he has already stepped in to settle the point guard spot as he has started seven of their nine games. He and Shaun Lawton, who was going to transfer but then decided to stay, are a good starting point along with Zarko Valjarevic, who can shoot with the best of them but started the season in a slump. There is talent up front with junior Till Gloger and sophomore Marko Pirovic, who missed Thursday night’s game due to injury. While it certainly isn’t as much talent as, say, Stony Brook or Albany have, it’s enough to compete and win some games while building for the future.

Maine has given Calixte the ball to run the show, and it’s likely his show to run for four years. He’s been up and down like pretty much any freshman, but good on the whole. He’s played in a lot of big games before college so the stage isn’t the biggest adjustment.

“My coach from day one has believed in me,” said the freshman guard, who grew up in nearby Stoughton, Mass. “He gave me the confidence and put the ball in my hand, and I’m trying to take advantage of that and play with everything I can.”

The staff, as well as veterans like Lawton, have worked with Calixte on the adjustment to college. As much as anything, it’s about how he’s gone from being the veteran in high school to now being the newcomer in college. He’s playing well, with more assists than turnovers in a very road-heavy slate thus far, but numbers aren’t the biggest thing they need.

“He’s still not entirely comfortable taking control, and I think that takes time,” said Walsh. “We keep talking to him about it, and his teammates are comfortable with him leading out there, but it’s all new to him.”

Getting non-conference home games is always difficult for a school like Maine, and this year the difficulty translated into just three of them. Two are already in the books, with one more to come in the midst of America East play. That means it’s been a road-heavy slate, making the challenge a bit tougher at first.

There’s no question that the defensive end is where this team has the most room for improvement. Opponents are shooting over 53 percent from the field on the season, and that included Thursday night with the Eagles being a little under 54 percent. While there’s plenty of room to improve in the halfcourt, the Black Bears did themselves no favors with 17 turnovers, many of the live-ball variety that led to easy BC baskets.

“Our offense made their offense better, because some of that shooting percentage – them shooting 54 percent – is us giving them the ball and then running down on a three-on-one and dunking it,” said Walsh. “A few times our defense didn’t have a chance to stop them. We’ve got to do a better job taking care of the basketball.”

One thing that made Walsh attractive for the job is that he can recruit New England very well. He has been a constant presence in New England gyms for a long time now and has an eye for talent. Add in his staff, led by Matt O’Brien, who he snagged away from conference rival Vermont, and they have a great start on recruiting here. Thus far, that is showing up on the bottom line, as the Black Bears signed three players in the early period who should all help right away. Two of them, guard Lavar Harewood and forward Ilija Stojilkovic, are in the New England prep ranks, while Devine Eke could be the best of them and is doing a post-graduate year at the Robinson School in his native New Jersey.

That being said, talent wasn’t the biggest problem during the late years of Ted Woodward’s tenure. The Black Bears had plenty of talent, but watched a lot of it walk out the door before their careers ended, including a big exodus after the 2012-13 season that basically sealed the prior staff’s fate. This new staff started out well by getting Lawton to decide to stay after he was ready to leave, and there seems to be some new energy around the program right now.

The challenge is a big one for the staff and the players. It won’t happen quickly, and they know it, so enjoying the process with things like a competitive spirit – something Walsh said he took as a positive from Thursday night’s game – is a key while they get better and rebuild. Acquiring a winning mentality, another thing Walsh said he thinks is changing, takes time. There is, however, some reason for hope early on.

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