BANGOR — Maine men’s basketball coach Bob Walsh doesn’t have to look far to find reassurance that a last-place team can rise quickly.

The evidence was on the same court with him Friday. The Black Bears’ women’s basketball team took the floor at the Cross Insurance Center right after the men, carrying a veterans’ calm demeanor just three years removed from rock bottom.

Women’s coach Richard Barron knows exactly what Walsh is going through in overhauling a team that finished 3-27 a year ago. In his second year at Maine, he brought in eight new players and watched them struggle to win four games.

His message back then:

“We don’t worry about beating the best team right now; we just need to worry about beating the eighth-best team,” Barron said at a joint men’s and women’s basketball media day.

“I see a lot of similarities with where they are this year with this group. It may be a year where they learn a lot about themselves, and the culture and the team. They’ve got a lot of depth and players; maybe they shock people and do it in a more accelerated fashion than we did.”

The women’s team won 17 games two years ago and 23 more last winter, when the Black Bears shared the America East Conference regular-season title with Albany. The mission this year, with all five starters back and four seniors on the bench, is an NCAA tournament bid.

The men’s team, in Walsh’s second season, has seven freshmen eligible this winter. And ample playing time available. The exuberance with which they practiced Friday was palpable.

“They’ve been telling us that on campus, that they’re not used to that. We like to run up and down, we like to dunk,” said 6-foot-6 forward Issac Vann, the most offensively gifted newcomer.

“We all want to push each other and make each other better. Going forward, we’ll become more of a team to talk about in the America East.”

They’ve certainly got the “pushing” part down. Vann, who scored 26 points on only 15 field-goal attempts in last Saturday’s scrimmage, was icing a twisted ankle after Friday’s practice. Four players have suffered concussions in the past two weeks, including last year’s leading scorer, sophomore guard Kevin Little, on a drive to the basket in the waning seconds of that scrimmage. He’s expected to miss another week or so.

“It does feel different, without question. New personalities and new talents, a higher level of athleticism,” Walsh said. “There’s a lot of sort of dumb, young energy.”

The women’s team has come a long way from those two adjectives. But senior guard Lauren Bodine remembers what it felt like to wonder when your next win was going to come.

The native of Louisville, Kentucky, was the second player to commit to Barron’s program four years ago. That freshman season was an ordeal, but nothing compared to what immediately followed, she said.

“Things did not go our way whatsoever, so the only way to get through it was if we became close and stuck together. It wasn’t the best times in life. But now looking back at it, I don’t think we’d be where we are without it,” Bodine said.

The 4-24 season led to a grueling offseason of conditioning that Bodine said left her constantly sore. But it laid the groundwork for a 13-victory improvement the following winter that was second-best in the country.

“We learned that if we think we’re working hard, we’re not working as hard as we are. We might have thought we were putting in the amount of effort but we weren’t. Now we know. It pays off eventually,” she said.

Devine Eke, a 6-7 freshman forward on the men’s team, was is no mood to talk about “eventually” Friday. The defensive specialist – he has a 7-foot wingspan plus the ability to guard on the wing – helped talk Vann into coming to Maine and offered a bold prediction.

“I like being part of something that nobody knows of. Now when we win a lot of games this year, everybody is going to know of UMaine,” Eke said.

How many wins?

“Out of 30 games, I’d say we win at least 17,” Eke said with a confident smile.

That prediction was relayed to Walsh.

“That’s the dumb part of the young, dumb energy,” he said, shaking his head. “Never put yourself out there like that.”


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