The question is hardly finished, but Issac Witham already has his answer. What is the University of Maine-Farmington men’s basketball team capable of this season?

“Nothing short of a (North Atlantic Conference) championship,” the sophomore forward and Skowhegan product said.

At a glance, it looks like unrealistic bravado. After all, the Beavers won only three games two seasons ago, sinking to the bottom of the North Atlantic Conference in the process. But UMF bounced back with 11 wins last year, and its players are confident the team hasn’t finished climbing.

“It was a down year the year before, so it was almost exciting for us to have the year that we had,” forward Riley Robinson said. “But we’re not satisified by any means. I’m really excited for this year, to see what it’s got.”

Robinson is another member of the class that sparked the turnaround last season as freshmen and now, as sophomores, is ready to continue it. In Witham, Robinson and forward Bill Ruby, the Beavers have three of their top four scorers back in the mix. They, along with center Anthony Owens, were tabbed the team’s core as freshmen, proved they could handle the pressure in their first years, and now are eager to succeed both as the team’s strength for the present and its hope for the future.

“It’s a sophomore-driven team,” coach Dick Meader said. “They did a good job last year of taking that step. … It’s tough in college for freshmen to play. It’s like a 14-year-old playing against an 18-year-old, for the 18-year-old to play against the 22-year-old. It takes a while to develop.”

And yet, Meader knew he was going to need the freshmen to play and play often last year, and relied on their promise to help the turnaround from a 3-23 season that served as a rare break from UMF’s normal pattern of playoff contention. The youth movement worked; each of the top five scorers on the team were freshmen, in Amir Moss (14.8), Robinson (13.1), Witham (12.0), Ruby (8.6) and Tyus Ripley (8.3). Ripley left the school, and Moss is inelligible for the season.

As impressive as the final results were, the now-sophomores acknowledged a learning curve that came with their first season of college basketball.

“The college game is just so different from the high school game,” Robinson said. “The speed, the length, the strength of the game is just at a different level.”

A four-game winning streak in January convinced the players that they could match the pace of the game and play up to their expectations.

“At the end of that (fourth) game, I thought to myself and we kind of said together, ‘Hey, we can do good things here,’ ” Witham said. “That’s where I realized ‘Hey, we can win a NAC championship, and that should be our goal from here on out.’ ”

That takeaway wasn’t forgotten by either Witham or his teammates when the time came this offseason to start working toward achieving that objective.

“We were all confident with that,” he said. “So we just need to enforce the idea this year that we have a chance to do something big here.”

UMF coaches and players saw that drive start to set in even before the season began.

“Riley Robinson really has changed his body a lot through eating habits and lifting,” Meader said. “Billy Ruby lifts a great deal. Issac Witham is very wiry, very strong, and his game has gotten better. Anthony Owens has continued to progress in getting stronger. (They) really spent a lot of time in the summer working on their game and weight training.”

“They know where they belong,” said guard and captain Eric Berry, a Mt. Blue product and one of the two seniors on the team. “And now they’re just trying to get better in the position that they’re at. I see that day in and day out.”

The work and progression has turned UMF’s sophomore class, also consisting of forward Casey Watson and guard John Williams, into a versatile group that can attack opponents in different ways. Witham is a sharpshooter. Ruby can slash to the rim. Robinson, a Mr. Maine basketball semifinalist, has a balanced game and can score from all over the floor.

“Everyone on the team on any given night can score 20,” Witham said. “And when you get different guys scoring 20, that just gives the team a big spark.”

Big enough to make the NAC title game for the first time since 2015, or win it for the first time since 2010? It remains to be seen.

But that’s the goal.

“I guess we were happy with how we did last year, but it almost put the trigger in our mind,” Robinson said. “I think that just made us hungrier to work harder in the offseason to really escalate us and bring us to the top of the conference this year.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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