This is the second part in a recurring series profiling college basketball programs in New England. The second stop is a place where basketball and winning have never been synonymous, but a new coach is working to change that.
When it comes to basketball, few programs own a more barren history than the University of Maine.
The program began play in 1904 and has had only two 20-win seasons in its entire existence. It has never made the NCAA tournament in over 50 years of Division I competition. Living in the shadow of a hockey program that has won two national titles and made 11 Frozen Fours has meant that basketball has traditionally played second fiddle during the winter.
That’s changing. Second-year coach Bob Walsh has no plans on stopping until he’s taken the Black Bears to the top of America East and beyond.
“There are a ton of people around here who care about this program,” Walsh said. “What we’re trying to do is establish a championship mentality in everything we do. It starts with our relationships off the court. We want our players to understand that everything we do in our program we’re going to do at a championship level, from individual development to practice to our approach in class, everything.”
Walsh knows a thing or two about winning. Before he came to Maine, he coached nine years at Rhode Island College and made RIC a mainstay atop Division III. Eight straight tournament appearances, highlighted by an Elite Eight, two Sweet Sixteens, and a record of 204-63 earned Walsh respect throughout New England.
In 2014 Walsh got the nod to take over in Orono, the easternmost outpost in Division I basketball, and has quickly gone about changing the culture. Last year the Black Bears won three games. This year Maine has won eight with eight games to play. The team sits fifth in the conference. The last time Maine finished above sixth in the league was 2011.
Walsh has begun building Maine on the backs of talented young players. Of the eight Black Bears that have played in 20 or more games so far this season, six are freshmen or sophomores. The Black Bears are led by Kevin Little, who averages 14.3 points a game. Devine Eke leads the team in the frontcourt with 10.5 points and seven rebounds a game. Isaac Vann is averaging 14.2 points a game but has played in only 10 games due to injury. Little is a sophomore and Eke and Vann are freshmen.
“We honestly don’t coach them by class year,” Walsh said. “We coach them through their approach, their talent, their production, and we have some good players that just happen to be young. It’s not like we’re just sticking them out there and just saying ‘we’re going to get beat up but hopefully in two years the experience will pay off.’ We’re fortunate we’ve been to recruit a talented, young group of players that’s been able to help us.”
Walsh’s biggest advantage is the building he calls home. The Black Bears moved into the Cross Insurance Center, 15 miles from campus in Bangor, when it opened in 2013. The CIC holds 5,800 people and provides all the amenities of modern, 21st-century arena. In a league where some teams play in glorified high school gyms, having a high-class arena becomes a marquee selling point.
“It’s a significant advantage,” Walsh said. “We’ve had recruits and their families on their visit, and they look around and their jaw drops. For our level it’s an elite arena. It’s a significant advantage, and we have a community that will support the U-Maine athletic programs and our teams.”
Everything Walsh has been building up has been paying off. After averaging 1,060 fans a home game last season, the Black Bears are averaging 1,602 a game so far this year with four home games left. There’s even a dedicated student-run fan group, Black Bear United, just for the basketball team.
“There’s a buzz on campus right now about what we’re building,” Walsh said. “Our students wait outside in the cold for two hours just to get [into hockey games] and sit behind the other team’s goalie and do their thing. It’s a little different from us because we play downtown, but the buzz is good. We recently had over 400 students at our game against UNH downtown. We have to put a championship-level product on the court, but what happens with hockey here and the support is signs of the energy and the foundation that we can build.”