University of Maine at Farmington men’s basketball coach Dick Meader has always been wary of relying on freshman starters. They’re often too small, he said. Or too slight. Or too raw.

But then Meader saw Issac Witham shoot a basketball. He saw it in high school games last season and then at practices during the fall. And the Beavers coach knew the Skowhegan product was changing his mind for him.

“He forced you to think that way, just the way he was playing. He was probably our best shooter in the preseason,” Meader said. “It’s like baseball. If a guy can hit, you’ve got to find a way to get him into the lineup.”

A cast of talented freshmen has prompted Meader to go with a young lineup, and Witham’s been showing he belongs in it. Tuesday’s game against Southern Maine was just the seventh of the season, but Witham has impressed, starting each game and ranking second on the team with 12.3 points per contest.

The numbers prove what Witham has known since he arrived on campus. He belongs at this level, and while it’s been an adjustment, it’s one he never doubted he’d be able to make.

“I kind of knew from the start that I could play with these guys,” he said. “Physically you can tell there’s a big difference there. Everyone’s a lot stronger, faster, quicker. But just staying mentally strong really helped me go with the flow of things.

“There’s definitely a sense of responsibility when you’re starting, but I think it brings more of a sense of confidence to me. It gives me that confidence that I deserve to be here.”

It hasn’t come without challenges. Witham is adjusting to the college pace and taking on a new position to boot, manning the point guard position after playing shooting guard in high school. And the seven games UMF has played have been a roller-coaster ordeal for the former Indian, with both the surging highs of two games as the team’s high scorer and the lows of a shooting funk that he’s still trying to shake.

Whether the shots are going in or not, however, Meader likes what he has in Witham. He likes his talent, respects his work ethic and admires his attitude toward the game.

“Considering he’s playing against 22-, 23-year-old guys and he’s 18 right out of high school, he’s done very well,” he said. “He does the other parts of the game, he’s very unselfish.”

Meader showed a high level of trust early on, tabbing Witham as the team’s point guard and assigning him the task of running the team’s offense. The coaches told Witham of their plans in the preseason, and while he had experience running the point before high school and in AAU competition, the designation came with an added incentive: Don’t change your style.

“Coach Meader’s very good about letting me play my game, doing what I can do, what I’ve always done,” said Witham. “Now I’m just setting up guys a little more often than I have. But I don’t mind that. I like the role.”

It was an easy call for Meader. Point guards are primarily distributors, but it didn’t make much sense to take the ball out of the hands of one of his sweetest shooters.

“Certainly, we think when he shoots the ball, it’s going in,” he said. “He has that type of shot.”

It was on display against the University of New England in just Witham’s second collegiate game. The 6-foot guard rained down shots from all over the court, hitting six of the 11 3-pointers he took and 11 of the 20 shots he attempted from the field. The result was a game-high 28 points and an impression on the college stage, though Witham didn’t let it sink in.

“I felt like, in the beginning of the game, I was kind of stiff. I wasn’t feeling that good,” he said. “I knocked down a couple of shots, and … when that starts going it just snowballs and you just get rolling.

“You don’t think. You just shoot.”

Another game as the leading scorer, an 18-point effort against St. Joseph’s, was next, but then came Thanksgiving, the players went home and Witham’s shot stayed there. He scored eight points against Husson, zero points against Castleton and nine points against Green Mountain. After making 9 of 18 3-point shots in his first three games, he made one of his next 10. A 55 percent shooter from the field in the first three games, Witham shot 30 percent his next three.

There were reasons for the skid. Meader said he could see a change in how defenses, alerted by the hot start, played Witham, throwing better defenders at him and making sure he never roamed free.

“You hear it on the sideline. ‘Shooter, shooter,’ that type of thing,” Meader said. “We all watch film, so coaches from other teams that might not see him early certainly are pointing him out as one of the people they’ve got to stop. (They’re) more intense defending him now.”

Meader said the team’s confidence in him hasn’t changed, nor do the players or coaches fear he’s being affected by the slump. According to Witham, they’re right.

“Basketball’s a game of mental toughness, and if you let one bad game get to you, that can ruin your season,” he said. “I just take it game by game, so if I’m not as hot as I can get, then I’ll just try to contribute to the team’s success and get other guys going.”

That’s where being the point guard helps. Witham has 10 assists in the three games he’s shot poorly, and his 2.7 assists per game lead the team. When he hasn’t contributed with his shot, he’s made sure to do so on the defensive side, notching seven of his eight steals in the past three contests.

“He respects defense and gives a very good effort every time,” Meader said. “He’s very good on the ball and even better off the ball. We don’t look to steal a lot, ours is more help-based, and he does a great job of talking and communicating.”

It’s part of being a complete player. The shot will return, and when it does, Witham will make sure his other abilities haven’t slipped in the meantime.

“(I’m) just continuing to play my game, shooting the ball, playing hard-nosed ‘D,’ ” he said. “That’s what I try to continue to do.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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