Black Bear Hoops in Portland: FTS Observes

photo 3When the Black Bear Hockey team came to Portland a few weeks ago, there was lots going on around the game that weekend – Alumni meet-ups and chances for kids to skate with the team.  The Men’s Basketball team came to town this week, and – thanks to it being a school night – there was a little less of that (though we heard that the college guys took in the Westbrook-Portland varsity game the night before…)  In the end, the results of both teams’ matchups were the same – one in the Loss Column.  Though, like their hockey counterparts, the Men’s Hoops team wasn’t without some glimmers of hope, even as they dropped to (gulp) 1-13 (0-2 in America East).  Your correspondent was thrilled to attend his first Maine Basketball game in more than a decade, even though it ended as a 68-54 loss – what follows are merely some observations and thoughts, for whatever they’re worth.


First of all was the crowd – it wasn’t huge, but – especially for a frigid Wednesday night – it wasn’t small, either.  The Portland Expo doesn’t hold that many, and the 1,600+ in attendance filled up the courtside bleachers, if not the ends.  There were many high school teams who came as groups to watch the big guys play – my rough estimate put them at around 1/3 of the total crowd, if not more.  This is important; in the case of the Hockey team, two of 27 players on the roster are from Maine.  On the hoops team, it’s two players as well, but of only 13.  Chances of a homegrown kid making a big difference on the Hockey Team are somewhat less – but as the Basketball Team continues its turnaround, Coach Bob Walsh & Co. will continue to do well to showcase the team to high schoolers across the state, reminding them that there’s a D-1 program in their home state.  They may be 1-13 now, but they won’t be forever – creating Maine as a potential destination for players like a Nick Caner-Medley can’t hurt.  Having said that, let’s get real – a successful program isn’t going to rely solely on local players.  In fact, some of Maine’s best players right now come from New York, Canada, Germany, and Serbia, among other outposts.

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So, onto the game…  What a start! The Black Bears opened up an 11-0 lead, and Vermont couldn’t score until eight full minutes in!  UMaine had some trouble getting the ball inside to start the game – but when they did, forward Till Gloger had decent success scoring.  I’ll admit that I wished he’d gone up strong with the ball right away – and I think Coach Walsh agreed, as I overheard him tell Gloger twice, “Get the ball inside and score.”  But Gloger drew contact a fair amount with his ball fakes, and got to the line often. Sloppy play with lots of turnovers and missed shots, but hey – the good guys were on their way to a win, right?  Nope.


The trouble really started on defense.  After opening up their early lead, some fundamental miscues seemed to open the door for the Catamounts – a few missed opportunities to seal off the baseline, a lack of help defense when it was needed (or being too quick to help when it wasn’t) allowed Vermont to take the lead at halftime, and they didn’t look back.  As Coach Walsh told the Portland Press Herald, “They started driving the ball to the rim and we couldn’t contain.  It’s just way too easy to score against us. And when it’s that easy, we’re going to struggle to win.”  The middle of the game sealed the deal – the ten minutes before and after the half were critical, and Vermont kept getting looks by driving the ball through Maine’s defense.  If the game had been just the first and last ten minutes of the game, it would’ve been close.  Unfortunately, they play those middle 20, too.


Here are the bright spots, though:

There are glimmers of a relatively potent offense.  Though many chances came late in the game, after Vermont was firmly in control and had subs in, Shaun Lawton impressed via his inside and outside game – that guy is a straight-up athlete; Marko Pirovic connected on a couple of beautiful-looking 3’s; and Kevin Little was quick, efficient, and a good distributor (4 assists in 25 minutes).


For the lapses on defense, I was impressed with Christian Ejiga’s willingness to contest layups with good physicality.  (Too little, too late, though.)


And the Black Bears communicate on D, for sure – I don’t think they’re complacent, as Coach Walsh encouraged the chatter, and each player was pretty vocal.  But when they’re out of position or their zone defense doesn’t rotate around in time, it’s tough to prevent buckets.

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Speaking of Coach Bob Walsh…  You know by know that we at FTS are big fans.  And we’re not the only ones, particularly after last night’s game.  I came to the game with a particular interest in watching him coach, and I wasn’t disappointed.  He’s not a firebrand, in the mold of a Bob Knight, but he’s certainly got the respect of the players and other coaches.  While the game was on, he was firmly in charge, and communicated with players only as loudly as he needed to, to get the message across.  Assistant coaches were actually much louder during the game, to my eye…er…ear.  But when a timeout came?  No one else talked.  Period.  Coach Walsh was the focal point, and all eyes were on him.  No wandering eyes, no chit chat, even from the other coaches or bench players who might not even see the court.  The respect factor is clear there, and in my humble opinion, that’s the first step toward building a better program.  We’re all looking forward to seeing his recruiting classes, and we’re excited for the future, but in my mind, Coach Walsh is 100% the right guy for this job right now, as the USS Black Bear looks to fundamentally change the course of the team and system.  I know I’m not alone in welcoming the Bob Walsh era, and I’m very hopeful that we’ll see the Black Bears in Portland again – and maybe I’ll even get to travel north to see ’em in Bangor, who knows?!?

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Stray observation: nice, if sad, moment of silence for former UMaine standout Nate Fox, who was tragically killed last month.

Last note: the Portland Expo doesn’t have a college three-point line.  How do I know?  Visual evidence, friends…

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Yeah… That’s tape, guys.





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