ORONO — The second game of Bob Walsh’s tenure as Maine men’s basketball coach was an eye-opener.

The Black Bears were facing New Jersey Institute of Technology, a fledgling Division I program, and were getting shoved all over the court. The Highlanders scored 46 points in the paint, shot 59 percent from the field, got to the free-throw line 38 times, and won 90-86.

“They looked like men,” Walsh said last week, recalling the Nov. 17 defeat. “I knew we needed to get stronger.”

The Black Bears concluded a 3-27 season with an 83-66 loss at Albany in the America East Conference quarterfinals March 4. You don’t lose 90 percent of your games without numerous and serious flaws, but for Walsh, the climb toward respectability starts with getting bigger and staying healthier.

To that end, the first thing a visitor to the basketball team’s offices in Memorial Gym notices these days is a weekly schedule for the players written on a whiteboard on the wall. Weightlifting sessions are its most prominent feature. It starts now, and continues through the summer.

Maine was overmatched too often in Walsh’s first season, by larger, more experienced teams, but also because there were times when the Black Bears could assemble only six healthy players. To Walsh, that’s not just a sign of bad luck. It also indicates that conditioning was problematic.


The Black Bears graduated only one senior from this winter’s team, wing player Zarko Valjarevic. Forward Marko Pirovic will have surgery to repair a foot injury that limited him to nine games as a sophomore and is expected to return. Garet Beal (a concussion and rib injuries) and Kevin Little (balky ankles) hopefully will be able to play full seasons. They figure to join seniors-to-be Till Gloger and Shaun Lawton, along with guards Troy Reid-Knight and Aaron Calixte, who played all 30 games as a freshman, as mainstays for Walsh in Year 2.


And then there are four incoming freshmen, who bring the usual high hopes but also a hint of much greater athleticism to come. In particular, 6-foot-6 forward Devine Eke of New Jersey, and the most recent commitment, 6-5 wing player Issac Vann of Connecticut, are two players who should pay immediate dividends where the Black Bears need it most – on defense.

“They’re really going to flourish in the way that Bob teaches defense,” predicted Adam Finkelstein, a Connecticut-based college basketball recruiting analyst for ESPN who has watched Eke and Vann several times. “This is a defensive system where they really attack dribble penetration with their help-side defenders. With these type of long, athletic and mobile guys, I think it’s going to be a recipe for a very exciting defensive style of play and that’s going to affect the offense.”

Maine ranked 344th out of the 345 Division I teams in NCAA rankings in field-goal percentage allowed, at 49.1 percent (only Central Arkansas was worse). That translated into 74.8 points allowed per game, which ranked 334th. It became Walsh’s constant lament after each loss. His team simply couldn’t sustain its defensive intensity throughout a 40-minute game. Without stops, there’s no chance to establish a transition offense. Or win.

Vann’s commitment is only verbal at this point, which precludes the Maine coaches from talking about him. He said he sees a void he is eager to fill.


“I’ve got long arms, so I can get deflections and I can guard a lot of positions,” Vann said. “Coach Walsh lets you do whatever you want on offense, as long as you play defense. In the transition game, spreading out the floor, I can help with that. I can create for myself and others off the dribble.”

Vann had offers from Monmouth and Fairfield, but chose Maine, even though it’s much farther from home (“There’s not as many distractions,” he reasoned). Finkelstein said Vann’s biggest weakness has been an inaccurate outside shot, but that he’s shown improvement there during a season at Coastal Academy prep school in New Jersey.

“It was a little bit of a steal for Maine. But I think the exciting thing for local Maine fans is he’s a guy who’s gotten a lot better in the last year and still has room to get a lot better,” Finkelstein said. “He’s as good of a prospect as I think Maine could have ever hoped to get, because he’s not a finished product. With his size, length and athleticism, he could have played A-10 (Atlantic-10 Conference) or higher. His Achilles’ heel has really been his jump shot and the mechanics of that shot.”

Eke is also raw offensively, but the duo figure to be among the best athletes in America East the moment they put on a Maine uniform. Serbian Ilija Stojilkovic, a 6-7 forward by way of Lee Academy, looks capable of providing an immediate lift as well. Walsh likened him to Toni Kukoc with his ability to score inside and outside. Lavar Harewood, a 6-3 guard from Brooklyn, New York, completes the cast of newcomers, although he may have a harder time cracking the rotation with Little, Calixte and Reid-Knight ahead of him.

Walsh, who watched his team win just one game each in December, January and February, is excited about the possibility of having a full roster. It fits with his desire to use 10 or 11 players to remain fresh while pressuring opposing offenses and creating transition baskets. In a league like America East, which features teams that focus on halfcourt offensive sets, it would be a stark departure.



But Walsh also cautions that recruits are just that until you get them in uniform and see what they can do against Division I competition. And his defense has a long way to go.

So he is hoping that Calixte (7.3 points, team-leading 3.4 assists per game) can become more consistent as a sophomore point guard. And that Little (team-leading 12.5 ppg) develops a tougher defensive mentality.

“On most teams, your point guard and your leading scorer are looked at as leaders, whether that’s fair or not,” Walsh said. “They need to be the ones setting the example.”

The good news for Maine is that America East was the 29th-ranked conference out of the 33 in Division I in the Ratings Percentage Index. The Black Bears had plenty of company at the bottom with Maryland-Baltimore County finishing 4-26 and Binghamton at 6-26.

With an infusion of talent, fewer injuries, a full offseason with the new coaching staff (Walsh didn’t arrive until last May) a middle-of-the-pack finish is definitely attainable next winter.

Walsh senses that as well, but is making no promises.

“We’d better be better,” he said.

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