Wednesday, February 8, 2012

No hoops jones in Maine

Interesting column in the Portland Press Herald this morning on the apparent lack of interest in the UMaine men's basketball program.

Steve Solloway attended the Vermont game and noted the small crowd of fans at The Pit. His search for explanations centered largely on recent happenings, i.e., last season's fall from grace (first place at the midway juncture only to lose seven out of eight down the stretch), up-and-down play this season and the injury to standout sophomore center Ali Fraser.

All miss the big picture.

Interest in the men's basketball program (at least interest calculated by fannies in the seats) has always been lacking – even during the "up" years. Fans are slow to jump on the men's bandwagon, if they jump at all, and quick to offload.

That comes from years of frustration and years of being Orono's forgotten program on the winter roster.

UMaine's identity crisis, however, didn't begin last year or last week. It goes far deeper than that. Support is not only measured by fans in the stands, but also in terms of funding and expectations. In short, Maine citizens have the type of Division 1 sports program for which they are comfortable paying.

If there was any real groundswell of support (other than the Alfonds and Mahaneys building and renovating stadiums and arenas), there would be "real" change. Short of that, UMaine is stuck on a treadmill of doing more with less and admiring the occasional exploits of Black Bears teams on a sporadic basis. In other words, there's no will to compete on a larger scale.

Men's basketball is a bit-player in the equation when compared to football, hockey and women's basketball. We all understand that. But even considering those circumstances, interest in the men's program shouldn't be gauged based on last year or this year alone.

Even if most of the state's basketball fans are not fully aware of the gory details, the men's hoop team is cognizant of the fact it hasn't won an America East conference tournament game since 2005.

That's nearly two full class cycles of players who have never tasted victory at in a league tournament game.

That late-night quarterfinal game at Binghamton University in Vestal, N.Y., has become but a fuzzy memory for this typist. Chris Markwood's shot with a couple seconds to go to beat third-seeded Boston U., spurred a post-game celebration at Applebee's, and still induces a smile. It's part of the reason we go to the games and will continue to go to the games.

But Chris Markwood has been an assistant coach (first at UMaine, now at Vermont) for four or five years now. Kevin Reed and Joe Campbell came up huge in the closing seconds of that game. Kevin Reed and Joe Campbell?

Many fans may not know the specifics, but they do know it's been a long time.

In addition to the conference tournament woes, the Black Bears have a history of playing well in December and January only to falter down the stretch. It weighs mightily on the staff and players who are trying to shed this yoke.

Since 2005, the Black Bears are 16-32 in the month of February and 1-8 in March. Those are the months when interest should be reaching a crescendo. The Black Bears have consistently found ways to throw sand into the engine.

So, go ahead, blame this season's win-two-lose-two mode or the memory of last year's meltdown, but it goes deeper than that.

As always, however, the Black Bears will attempt to break the cycle in near anonymity. Good times, bad times, in between times. That doesn't change.

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