The perpetual smile on Ben Johnson’s face hasn’t disappeared but it’s waned a little in light of a slow start this season by the University of Maine at Farmington basketball team.

It’s the senior season for the reigning North Atlantic Conference Player of the Year and expectations are high for both Johnson and the Beavers, who were picked first in the NAC preseason poll.

“I feel like this is my team and I’m letting my team down,” the 6-foot-8, 245-pound center said. “I’m the big man on campus and there’s a lot of expectations this year. We’re 1-2 and that doesn’t feel very good at all.”

The Beavers lost non-conference games to Bates and Colby in which Johnson averaged 12 points and 12 rebounds. Last year, he averaged 21.8 points and 11.2 rebounds a game, facts not lost on the opposition.

“He’s really off to a tough start,” UMF coach Dick Meader said. “Once the ball goes into him (the defense) is dropping down and forcing him to pass.”

Against Colby, Johnson was fronted by big men and had a guard play directly behind him. Johnson said he’s working on his passing, but it’s difficult with two or three defenders surrounding him.

“We didn’t do a great job swinging the ball around enough,” Johnson said.

Although Johnson’s shooting range has improved, he’s employed almost exclusively in the low post where he can use his size to get to the basket. So far this season, he’s having trouble finishing. Meader believes he is rushing his shot a little and will be OK “when he slows down and uses his strength.”

Johnson’s performance at UMF has improved steadily since his freshman season. He admits he came in out of shape and said he has since trimmed his body fat to about 11 percent.

“I came in like a defensive lineman,” he said. “I didn’t have the endurance. I lost 20 pounds and put on 10 pounds of muscle. My endurance has greatly improved.”

So has Johnson’s maturity, a question at times when he played for Maranacook Community High School. This year, he’s a captain for the Beavers.

“I’m getting into it,” he said. “I was a captain in high school and I don’t think I performed as well as I should have. You have to lead by example . . . I guess it’s just a matter of manning up and being an adult.”

Johnson has worked hard on improving his game. Last season he improved his free throwing shooting from 55 percent as a sophomore to 72 percent. His defense has also improved.

“Last year he did a great job,” Meader said. “Two years ago he was on the bench a lot in foul trouble.”

Meader, like Johnson, believes UMF’s success begins with his big center. The team has yet to win a NAC championship, losing to a lower seed last season on their home floor.

“We got smoked by Castleton,” Johnson said. “It was extremely embarrassing. We want to win the conference championship and go to the NCAA tournament.”

Johnson is majoring in political theory and would like to attend law school, but he hasn’t ruled out basketball after graduation.

“Coach has talked of looking at teams overseas,” he said. “I’m not sure how viable that is. I’d love to play overseas at any level.”

Gary Hawkins — 621-5638[email protected]Twitter: @GaryHawkinsKJ