Friday, November 6, 2009

Nine Teams, Nine Days: Maine

Last season: 9-21 (4-12 America East), lost in play-in game to Hartford.

Head coach: Ted Woodward, five seasons, 54-93 record (29-55 AE).

Departing players: Phillipe Tchekane Bofia, Jordan Cook, Jason Hight, Doran Mitchell, Kaimondre Owes, Mark Socoby

Incoming players: Jon McAllian, Mike Allison, Jerrell Boswell, Murphy Burnatowski, Terrance Mitchell, Travon Wilcher (eligible 2nd half).

Expected starting lineup (position, name, year, 2008-09 stats):
G Junior Bernal, senior, 7.2 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.1 APG
G Gerald McLemore, sophomore, 11.9 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.1 SPG
G/F Malachi Peay, junior, 6.0 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.1 SPG
F Troy Barnies, junior, 7.4 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 0.9 APG
F Sean McNally, junior, 9.5 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.5 BPG

Player to watch: McLemore. As a freshman, the 6-foot-3 guard from San Diego wasted little time introducing observers to his offensive capabilities, dropping 24 points on Northern Illinois in his collegiate debut. When McLemore is on, he is the rare Black Bear who can create his own offense. However, an eFG% below 50 in 2008-09 points to McLemore's relative inefficiency, common among freshmen but not a desirable trait for a primary scoring threat. Even when McLemore is cold, he commands the defense's attention, but more often than not the players surrounding him were unable to take advantage of the opportunities his presence created. If the Black Bears are going to make strides toward respectability this season, the dangerous, effective McLemore will need to show up more than the shot-happy, inefficient version.

Biggest strength: Perimeter defense. Maine held opposing shooters to a 31.1% rate from beyond the arc last season; while that rate was somewhat higher during conference play, defending perimeter players remained one of the Black Bears' relative strengths last season. Perhaps more importantly, Maine returns the key personnel responsible for containing opposing sharpshooters. It all begins with Junior Bernal, who runs the point for Maine but stands 6-foot-5, allowing the senior guard to defend a variety of positions and close out against shooters. McLemore's athleticism also helps Maine matching up against perimeter threats; if McLemore displays the defensive improvement exhibited by many sophomores, there's reason to expect Maine's perimeter defense will be a strength again this season.

Biggest weakness: Interior defense. While the Black Bears are capable of blocking their fair share of shots, there isn't much positive to say about the rest of their interior defense. Sure, Maine's bigs stay out of foul trouble. They also stay out of the opponent's way. Maine's foes converted on two-point shots at a 51.6 percent rate last year, the worst rate allowed by any America East defense. Add abysmal defensive rebounding -- the Black Bears grabbed just 62.2 percent of opponents' missed shots -- and you might as well lay out the red carpet when the other team approaches the rim. Peay is a much better rebounder than Socoby and figures to absorb a large chunk of Socoby's minutes, but that alone won't be enough to fix Maine's porous interior defense. Sean McNally and Troy Barnies aren't plagued by foul trouble; both need to take advantage of their typically low foul totals and play more aggressive defense, whether it be defending the post, offering help, or grabbing rebounds.

Offseason: While grumbling about the state of Maine hockey continues to increase in volume with each passing year, it would be easy to overlook the troubles that have befallen Maine basketball. Yet it was not the most pleasant of summers for the Black Bears, either. Assistant head coach Mike Burden resigned after being charged with sexual assault, and leading scorer Mark Socoby left the team with a year of eligibility remaining.

There aren't any indications from the Maine athletic department that head coach Ted Woodward may be on the hot seat, but after a couple of respectable seasons, Woodward's teams have spent consecutive years toiling away at the bottom of the conference standings. Maine fans are left hoping their team's fortunes have taken a turn for the better since the Black Bears were last seen on the hardwood.

Guards: Maine's hopes are pinned squarely on Gerald McLemore's jersey. McLemore may not be a great distributor or an adept rebounder, but make no mistake, the man can shoot. Last season, McLemore hit 70 shots from 20 feet, 9 inches or farther. Relying heavily on threes can lead to a feast-or-famine offensive game, though, and McLemore's inefficiency is in large part a product of his inability to reliably convert from inside the arc. 40.6% from 2-point range just doesn't cut it; that, coupled with an inability to get to the line, at times renders McLemore a one-dimensional offensive player. A significant improvement in efficiency for McLemore's sophomore season wouldn't be a surprise, but the Black Bears won't surprise without it.

Bernal is the "point guard" running the Black Bear attack. Point forward might be more accurate. Bernal attempted a grand total of six threes last year over the course of some 800-plus minutes despite opponents regularly daring him to shoot. He led Maine in free throw rate (or FTRate, measured as free throws attempts per field goal attempt), only to display poor form while at the charity stripe. He has the size and strength to guard opposing wings. Sounds like a forward, no? Bernal runs the point for the Black Bears, and while his playmaking and turnover-avoidance might not be top-notch, he's displayed marginal improvement from year to year and is Maine's best option at this point.

Andrew Rogers will be backing up Bernal and represents the other end of the point guard spectrum. At 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, Rogers is outsized by most opposing guards; Maine's perimeter defense will take a hit with him on the floor. Where the sophomore guard shines is as a distributor. An A/TO of 1.4 is solid for a freshman guard, and improvement in Rogers' sophomore campaign seems likely. The primary barrier between Rogers and serious minutes is his lack of offensive firepower. Rogers shot just 30.8% from the field in 2008-09 and rarely gave the defense a reason to worry about him. Rogers' ability to spread the ball around is enough to warrant rotation minutes, but until he makes defenses pay for daring him to shoot, this pint-sized point guard will bear the backup label.

Terrance Mitchell is one of two junior college transfers to arrive in Orono. Mitchell shined while attending Faulkner State Community College in Alabama, earning an NJCAA All-American Honorable Mention and averaging over 20 points per game. The 6-foot-3 junior guard can be deadly accurate from 3-point range -- he hit 12 treys in a single game last February -- and isn't afraid to go after rebounds. At a minimum, Mitchell should be a suitable substitute for McLemore; if his offensive skills translate well to Division-I, Mitchell offers Woodward the ability to spread the floor with multiple shooters. With Bernal more than capable of guarding small forwards, it's possible Mitchell could receive the starting nod over Peay or Barnies.

Jerrell Boswell is the other junior college addition at guard. If Mitchell is a good 3-point shooter, words fail to fully describe some of Boswell's feats. Boswell once hit 15 threes in a single game, which ranks as the second-highest total of all time among NJCAA players. To put 15 threes into context, no Division-I player made more than 11 3-point shots in a single game last year. Boswell stands 6-foot-0, so the Black Bears' defensive options are somewhat limited with him on the court as compared to Mitchell, but any lineup with Bernal running the point can accommodate two additional guards on the defensive end. If either Boswell or Mitchell can make an immediate impact, the Black Bears should be improved offensively compared to last year.

Ryan Martin is the second 5-foot-9 guard on Maine's roster. Unlike Rogers, Martin is a walk-on guard and saw very little playing time as a freshman. Martin was named Mr. Maine Basketball by the Maine Association of Basketball Coaches while in high school. Unfortunately for Martin, such accolades have done little to earn him much playing time. With Boswell and Mitchell in front of him, Martin's shooting ability is devalued, and as the third, possibly fourth guard off the bench, he is unlikely to make a significant impact.

Jon McAllian redshirted last season and retains his freshman status. At 6-foot-6, McAllian has the size to consistently release his shot without fear of rejection. Another local product (McAllian hails from Bangor), McAllian's game resembles that of a poor man's Mark Socoby -- he can do a little of everything. There isn't any evidence he does these things well enough to carve out a niche and earn some playing time. While McAllian may surface from time to time, don't expect more than the occasional on-court appearance.

Forwards: Sean McNally upped his production in 2008-09, emerging as one of Maine's main offensive threats. An increase in playing time was partially responsible, but as a sophomore McNally displayed significant evolution as a shotblocker, free throw shooter, and offensive rebounder. McNally's low foul rate allows him to stay on the floor, but his poor fundamental defense limits the benefits his offensive presence provides. Maine was regularly abused by opposing forwards last year, but McNally can make a point of establishing -- and maintaining -- better defensive position without excess fear of foul trouble. On the offensive end, McNally already does a good job getting to the line, but every additional foul drawn brings more opportunities at the charity stripe. For a free throw shooter whose success rate approached 80 percent last season, McNally would be well served by a more combative approach at both ends.

Malachi Peay missed a month during the later part of non-conference play before starting nine games against America East opponents, including 42 minutes of game time in Maine's closely contested 78-75 double-overtime victory versus New Hampshire. Peay, like Bernal, is a slasher who rarely attempts longer-range shots, so a starting lineup featuring both he and Bernal may not offer enough to stretch zones, but Peay adds value as an excellent defensive rebounder, something Maine needs in spades. A frontcourt of McNally, Peay and Barnies may be the recipe to curing what ails Maine's interior defense. At the very least, Peay's on-court presence should help prevent second-chance opportunities.

Troy Barnies emerged as Maine's most efficient scorer last season, posting an eFG% of 56.4 while averaging 7.4 points per game. Barnies also showed improvement on the boards, with solid rebounding rates at both ends. Barnies has good range for a forward standing 6-foot-7, with the ability to hit a 3 if left open (he was 8-of-17 from long range last year). Barnies, like McNally, needs to make a more concerted effort to prevent opponents from creating high-percentage shot opportunities, either by denying the ball or by using his body to establish position and cut off access to the rim. The Black Bear frontcourt has plenty of size, and that size needs to be used effectively.

Travon Wilcher arrives in Orono after a stint at UMass. Wilcher saw limited playing time as a freshman, appearing in six games before deciding to transfer. Because Wilcher was enrolled at Maine for the spring semester last season, he will be eligible to compete after the fall semester concludes. Wilcher is an excellent athlete and should be well-equipped to help the Black Bears on the boards due to his leaping ability. In addition, Wilcher is not strictly limited to attempting shots in and around the basket, as he reportedly has a functional mid-range game.

Mike Allison and Murphy Burnatowski are Maine's two freshman frontcourt additions. Both Allison and Burnatowski are Canadian, and each has played for the Under-19 Canadian National Team. Burnatowski, a small forward, is the shorter of the two, measuring 6-foot-7; he is a solid shooter but is unlikely to create his own offense. Allison is 6-foot-9 but very lean, weighing just 205 pounds. Allison is expected to be a shotblocker -- he blocked eight shots in 95 minutes at the FIBA Americas Under-18 Championship -- and has decent shooting range for a big, but is not noted for his rebounding. Without any established presence backing up the forward positions, Allison and Burnatowski should get at least occasional opportunities to earn playing time.

Center: There are players on the Maine roster tall enough (Mike Allison) or strong enough (Sean McNally) to be considered a Division-I center, but the 6-foot-9, 265 pound Svetoslav Chetinov is the only player satisfying both categories. Chetinov has the size and strength to be a presence down low but lacks the necessary finesse and control to use that size effectively. There is certainly offensive potential there, as Chetinov can pass out of the post and hit open shots from midrange. Chetinov's troubles are more defensive in nature, as poor defensive positioning, slow feet, and unrefined technique leave him prone to foul trouble. Still, the sophomore was a capable rebounder and shotblocker in limited minutes, and will likely see rotation minutes.

Outlook: Maine has the pieces in place to play solid basketball night in and night out. McLemore is a star in the making, McNally is a good source of interior offense, and there are several other players on the roster with useful skills. On the other hand, the Black Bears are not fundamentally different from the team that went 4-12 in conference play last year. Blowout losses shouldn't be expected, but Maine hung around in many of its games last year only to find ways to lose at the end. On paper, Maine should be able to improve where there were weaknesses and emerge as a solid if not spectacular team -- it's the years of underwhelming results that make said improvement seem unlikely. Mark Maine down for 7th place, with little hope of finishing above 6th.

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