Maine and Hartford have been in Division I basketball for a combined six decades (Maine joined in 1977, Hartford in 1984), and have a grand total of zero NCAA Tournament appearances between them, so while many coaches and programs talk about “upholding the tradition”, what do you do when there’s not much to work with?
Maine has had just one winning record in its last 12 seasons (2009-10), but there’s a little to talk about there, as Dr. John Giannini – who went to the Sweet 16 with La Salle in 2013 – went 24-7 in 1999-2000 before they lost at Mike Brey and Delaware in the America East semifinals. Giannini had one more 20-win season in Orono, losing at Vermont in the conference final in 2003-04, before heading to Philadelphia.
Bob Walsh, like anyone who takes a rebuilding job such as Maine, knew it would be difficult, and now has a 16-64 record in his third season after falling 54-44 at Hartford Monday afternoon. Recruiting to a place that is extremely out of the way (so much so that even I’ve never made it there for a game yet) and has had little recent success is difficult enough, but Walsh has had to deal with season-ending injuries to juniors Aaron Calixte and Ilker Er, and played a fifth straight game without promising freshman Andrew Fleming.
Per KenPom, Maine (5-15, 1-4) will be favored in only one game the rest of the season, against … Hartford.
Believe it or not, the road to success for John Gallagher at Hartford might be even more arduous. The Hawks’ 18-16 record in 2008-09 remains its all-time high for wins in Division I. They are best known for having Vin Baker (lightly recruited out of high school), who was the No. 8 pick in the 1993 NBA Draft, but the Hawks did not have a winning record in any of his four seasons at the school. None of its former head coaches have ever gotten a head coaching position anywhere else, although you may recognize the name Larry Harrison from being Bob Huggins’ associate coach at West Virginia.
Hartford and Gallagher did post back-to-back winning seasons for just the second-time in school (Division I) history in 2012-13 and 2013-14, finishing 10-6 in America East both times. But the fleeting glory saw them at 5-13 and 0-3 in America East this season before Monday’s victory. To be fair, Gallagher – now in his seventh season – is much further along than his counterpart Monday as the result showed.
The Hawks had a non-conference win last month over a major opponent (Boston College) for the first time since 1986, when Hartford beat UConn in Jim Calhoun’s first season in Storrs, and look like they could (although they’ll have to do it without senior Jalen Ross) be back on the road to improvement for future years with a young nucleus and some pretty highly acclaimed recruits coming in the door the next couple of seasons. And Gallagher – ever the optimist – still believes this year’s team is capable of an America East run soon.
“There’s a lot of wins left on the board in this league,” Gallagher said. “We just have to worry about getting better. John (Carroll) is slowly getting back. We’re getting comfortable with our roles. When we kind of reset the program after my fifth year, I didn’t think we’d have the success this season like the BC win or the Rutgers game (77-75 loss) that we should have won. I now know what we can do and have a better feel for my team, and I like the direction that we’re headed.”
The Hawks have two chances to prove themselves this week with games at Stony Brook and against New Hampshire, two teams expected to challenge Vermont for the title in the end. If they can get on a roll, who knows?
— America East (@AmericaEast) January 16, 2017
What else did we learn in front of 904 paying folk Monday afternoon in West Hartford?:
- Slow, slower, slowest
The game finished with 54 possessions, just two off the low in Division I for the season and among the top five. Making it even more remarkable is that Maine was fourth nationally in adjusted tempo (behind just The Citadel, Washington, and Marshall) last season, still under Walsh. But the Black Bears are so banged up that they figure their best way to compete at the moment is to slow things down (Saturday they had only 60 possessions against Stony Brook).
“We have six healthy scholarship players,” Walsh said. “We have to give our guys the best chance to win this game. As bad as we played offensively, we still had a chance to win the game down the stretch.”
Hartford came out in zone, which also serves to slow the game down, and the Hawks led throughout, which meant they didn’t feel the need to speed things up, either. So you had a perfect storm of slow.
“With 10 minutes left in the game, we were just like, ‘Let’s just win the game’. It’s not really how we want to play, but we didn’t want to do anything crazy with the lead,” Gallagher said.
An amazing fact: One of Maine’s four America East wins last season was at Hartford, and it was 105-100 in overtime with, wait for it, 98 possessions (?!?). You’ll be hard-pressed to find that kind of difference in one season with the same two coaches.
“If you told me they’d score 54 points and make 5 threes, I’d tell you we won by 15,” Walsh said. “We just really struggled to score and give their defense credit. We just could not get comfortable on offense. I thought we attacked the zone well in the first half and didn’t get much out of it, and in the second half, we just couldn’t get a good look.”
2) Hassan Attia the big man in the middle
Attia missed the first six games of the season because of NCAA paperwork issues, and Monday was his season-high with 27 minutes (maybe the pace helps?). He finished with just 6 points, but had 11 rebounds and 3 blocks, and the stats don’t always show how important it is to have a rim protector in there. Maine scored just 15 points in the second half, and Attia was there every time the Black Bears tried to get near the basket.
“We’re just a different ballclub with Hassan in the middle when he stays out of foul trouble,” Gallagher said. “Ironically, when referees see him a second time, they understand he’s just big and you can’t call a foul on him for being big. We can extend when he’s in there. He had three blocks and he realistically changed about five other shots.”
3) Jalen Ross seeing more attention
Ross has been in double figures in every game this season, is averaging 20.7 points per game, and has hit 30 three times, but the beginning of America East play was a bit of a struggle for him, shooting 7-19 against Vermont, 4-12 vs. UMBC, and 6-19 at UMass Lowell. Monday was the first game all season he didn’t hit a three-pointer, but he still finished with a game-high 19 points on 9-18 FG, which – considering the tempo as well – is an excellent day’s work – and Hartford will need that kind of production going forward.
“You can tell that I’m heavily scouted, but you have to just read and react and see what they’re doing and determine what you want to do. You can’t force,” Ross said.