It’s finally time to kick off the season, Bulldog fans! The first game of the new season squares off two first year head coaches in Chris Holtmann and Bob Walsh. Walsh is in his first year after leading Rhode Island College to the NCAA DIII tournament eight out of his nine seasons after the school had gone through a 28 year drought prior to his arrival. Maine’s drought is much longer though, as the school has never been to an NCAA tournament. Beyond that, I needed a little bit of help getting to know Butler’s first opponent of the year, so I enlisted the aid of Pete Warner, Maine’s sportswriter of the year who is the Assistant Sports Editor of the Bangor Daily News to get them to know a little better.
BH: From the first exhibition against Southern Maine to the second against Husson, it appeared the team made significant strides. What were your takeaways from each game, and what in your mind changed from the first to the second game?
PW: I did not witness the Southern Maine game, but Walsh said the Black Bears suffered from some what I would call inexplicable overconfidence. They figured they would pull the game out, but didn’t. Against Husson, it took a while, but Maine wore down its opponent by pounding the ball inside against at much smaller Division III opponent. In reality, neither game was really the kind of competition Maine needed to face, but the Southern Maine loss does not bode well for the season.
BH: The basketball team’s practice jerseys all have zeroes on them. For those that aren’t aware, what’s the story behind those?
PW: The zero on the back of UMaine’s practice jerseys refer to the fact that they are starting over from 0, and also that the program has never played in the NCAA tournament. It is intended, Walsh said, to remind them of where they came from, but also that they have a lofty goal to chase as the program moves forward. They also have t-shirts that say “Entitled to Nothing” on the back, again a reflection that they’re going to have to work their way up from the bottom of the Division I ranks to re-establish the program.
BH: Bob Walsh took Rhode Island College, a school that hadn’t been to the Division III NCAA tournament in 28 years in 8 of his 9 seasons there. What are your expectations for the Black Bears this year, and even though it’s very early, do you think Walsh is the guy to bring Maine to the NCAA tournament for the first time?
PW: Walsh’s success at Rhode Island College seems to prove that he can recruit, motivate and coach at the Division III level. The assumption is that the same dynamics should be achievable in Division I. However, the magnitude of the rebuilding project here is significant.
I would be surprised if this team wins more than seven or eight games this season. The Black Bears have an insane early nonconference schedule during which they will play 11 of their first 13 games on the road or at neutral sites. While the time away may help them bond, they’re not talented enough to beat good teams. That said, I expect Walsh to establish a good baseline with his defensive philosophy and expectations and that this team will improve drastically as the season progresses. In terms of an NCAA bid, we’re three or four years from that even being considered, in my opinion.
BH: Maine has played so far this year without its leading returning scorer, Zarko Valjarevic. What’s the timeline for his return?
PW: Valjarevic has been dealing with some kind of foot issue that cropped up after their intrasquad scrimmage. He hasn’t played yet but dressed for the Husson exhibition game. I would expect that he will be dressed and play at least some minutes at Butler, although I’m not sure how much he’ll be able to give them. He is their best perimeter shooter, hands down and is their only senior, so they need him on the floor.
BH: Who are some guys to look out for this season for the Black Bears? What do you see as the team’s strength and what are some areas they will need to improve upon?
PW: As far as players to watch, freshman point guard Aaron Calixte is a good one and has tremendous potential. He’s more of a facilitator than a scorer, but I expect he’ll be on the America East All-Rookie Team at season’s end. Lawton can be a disruptive force on defense with his long arms and quick hands and is good in transition, but he tends to get a little out of control at times. Garet Beal is a big, strong kid who has an decent upside, but he needs to learn how to defend Division I guards. Troy Reid-Knight is a talent, but he suffered a concussion at some point and hasn’t been on the court. Maine’s frontcourt is small, weak and slow, for the most part, so Butler will dominate the paint and the boards.
BH: Maine was picked 8th in the America East preseason coaches’ poll this year. Where do you see things shaking out for them in the league this year?
PW: If Maine doesn’t finish 8th, it’ll finish ninth. They’re in for a long season, although there should now be a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, which was not the case under Ted Woodward last season.
BH: Maine is known the world over for its fresh lobster. Where’s the best place in Bangor to grab a lobster tail?
PW: Lobster is pretty much lobster no matter where you buy it around here, but you can’t go wrong at Captain Nicks on Union Street. And make sure you eat more than the tail, there’s plenty of meat in the claws, in the body and in the legs as well. A true Mainer will suck every last tasty morsel out of the shell and cartilage. And if there was a little bit left over, mix it with some mayo and make a little lobster roll.
I want to thank Pete for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of our questions. Jared Grubbs will be at the game covering the game for Butler Hoops, so follow him on twitter for all your game updates, and let us know what you think the keys to game are in the comment section and the message board.
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