A year ago, first-year coach John Giannini rigged together an offensive system designed to keep his paper-thin University of Maine men’s basketball team in as many games as he could.
All season long, Giannini’s “Big Four” carried the bulk of the offensive load, and the Black Bears slowed the tempo to keep those four players on the court.
Those four players accounted for 78.4 percent of points the Black Bears scored all year.
According to Giannini, the gimmick was a one-year fix, and in Year Two, things would change.
In fact, many things are different this year. Two top junior college players are in the fold. Two highly regarded transfers from Boston College are practicing and will play next season. And Giannini’s second recruiting class is signed, sealed and soon to be delivered.
But while the future looks bright for Giannini’s squad, the present looks an awful lot like last year, when teams knew only a few Bears could do much damage and took advantage of that fact.
In fact, this year’s team is even thinner than last. Now the number of offensive-minded Bears is down to three.
Of last year’s Big Four – Terry Hunt, John Gordon, Ramone Jones and Allen Ledbetter – only Ledbetter remains.
With the addition of juco stars Fred Meeks and Marcus Wills, the Bears put two key cogs back into the mix.
But that’s about it. This year, instead of a Big Four, the Bears are left with a Key Three.
And after that trio, production drops off precipitously: Meeks, Wills and Ledbetter are scoring 76.4 percent of the Bears points.
That formula isn’t working very well for UMaine. The Bears have lost five straight and are 4-10 overall, 1-5 in America East play.
Giannini said that last spring, he knew this season’s rewards would be hard won. Gordon transferred to Delaware, two senior leaders were leaving, and the rebuilding process was getting under way in earnest after a whirlwind first season.
He said the Black Bears are working their way toward the productive mix he has in mind.
“To truly reach a team’s potential, you need a great deal of stability, maturity and charachter,” he said. “When you have three or four highly productive players, the pressure on them to have those qualities is enormous.
“But there is a critical mass, and I think it’s four players, along with at least two or three role players, that enables you to compete at the minimum championship level.”
Giannini said that last year’s team may have had the four key players, but was woefully short on good role players.
“This year we might have a couple more good role players in Colin Haynes and Dade Faison, but we probably need another legitimate scorer and major college athlete in this mix.”
Two players who fit the bill – Andy Bedard and Nate Fox – practice every day, but both must sit out until next year according to NCAA rules. In the meantime, the Bears have to do the best they can with what they have.
And that’s tough.
The fact that guards Wills, Meeks and forward Ledbetter account for such a high percentage of the Bears output isn’t the only problem that faces the Bears.
When the other Bears are getting shots, they just aren’t hitting.
Meeks, Wills and Ledbetter are shooting a combined 49 percent from the floor, compared to 28.5 percent for the rest of the squad.
On 3-pointers, it gets even worse. Meeks and Wills (Ledbetter has tried only one desperation 3 all season) are 79 for 175 (45.1 percent). The rest of the Bears are 40 for 168 (23.8 percent).
Ironically, the output of those three players has placed them among the leaders on the NCAA national rankings.
But those rankings don’t translate into wins and losses.
Giannini said it’s hard to expect such high production from three players every night.
“One thing that adds to the frustration is the pressure that’s on those three players, not only that you’ve got to produce, but that you’ve got to do it against teams that are designing things to stop you every night,” Giannini said.