Few people have provided the University of Maine athletic program with more bulletin board material than yours truly.

I’ve called frequent attention to the Black Bears’ slow, steady, across-the-board decline over the past two decades, some it for circumstances beyond their control.

And no program has been an easier target than men’s basketball. It’s a fish-in-a-barrel proposition. Every March, some hole-in-the-wall “university” with a hyphen and/or directional word in its name is ballyhooed over its first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament or some upset for the ages.

Maine, meanwhile, is left to ponder yet another first-round loss in the America East tournament, followed by the sad reminder that they are on that ever-shrinking list of institutions that have never even sniffed a pizza party at a bracket selection show.

Maybe it’s the falling spring snow, confusing the birds and flowers outside my window, talking, but the fun and foolishness of this year’s madness have altered my position ever-so-slightly.

Multiple times I’ve told you that Maine will never, ever, qualify for the field of 68; that its geographical isolation and an overall lack of urgency throughout the athletic department has saddled the program with the perpetual fate of going 10-19 while suiting up players we don’t really know.

The hiring of former women’s coach Richard Barron, coupled with the knowledge that conference rival Maryland-Baltimore County became America’s darling for about 48 hours last weekend, have inspired me to believe anything is possible.

Perhaps the biggest strike against the Black Bears is the lack of homegrown talent that sustains most low-to-mid-majors. When you’re closer to New Brunswick than New York, you’re probably going to have a bad time. And with the notable exception of Andrew Fleming, Troy Barnies and Sean McNally, few of Maine’s legitimate D1 players have expressed any desire to stay home and play for the flagship.

But the vast array of upsets in the early rounds of this year’s tournament, both in the men’s bracket and to a lesser degree the women’s side, should encourage everyone that their school is never that far away from its one shining moment.

Do you think any kid in America grows up saying, oh man, one day if I practice and study hard enough, I can play for Maryland-Baltimore County, Loyola Chicago or Buffalo? Heck no. While it’s true those schools have the built-in advantage of being in major cities, it’s still all about recruiting and all about the opportunity those relative unknown teams provide.

Regardless of how much we old-timers bemoan what basketball “used to be” and discuss the devolution of the overall product, it’s indisputable that there are more good players out there than ever. Thousands and thousands of them.

Some of them wind up playing in obscurity because none of the 300-plus D1 coaches in America found them. Others are languishing on someone’s bench, hungry for an opportunity.

Regardless of what Tubby Smith thinks, it’s more than OK for those players to have wanderlust until they find the right spot for them. Going public with that insipid take is probably why Memphis fired him after two years. Heck, a big part of a coach’s job outside the Power 5 conferences these days is to strike that delicate balance between tampering and keeping his finger on those disenchanted players’ pulse.

There are legitimate star players out there in America who simply want a chance to play and keep the dream alive. They don’t really care if the city in question has a pro sports franchise, a bustling night life or even a Krispy Kreme. They don’t care if it snows every day for six months straight.

Here in Central Kentucky, my office is less than a mile from one of the top NAIA programs in the country. Not sure what you know about NAIA, since it’s primarily a Midwest phenomenon, but be assured that the top teams could beat most .500-or-under NCAA opponents like a drum.

The rosters are crawling with NCAA refugees and guys who simply were overlooked in the inexact science of recruiting. Georgetown College’s best player started a bunch of games last winter for Texas Tech — the same team that knocked off Purdue on Friday night to earn an Elite Eight berth.

My point is that guys of that ability level and eagerness to prove everybody wrong are available to Maine every year, whether it’s coming out of high school or seeking a better fit later on.

Are they malcontents? Is there a reason other coaches dropped the ball on them? Probably, but a good coach, someone like Barron, can find them, mold them as individuals and build them into a cohesive unit.

And it shouldn’t take more than five such players — or even two or three, with the right teammates — to beat the likes of Vermont, Albany, Binghamton and UMBC and earn that elusive chance to shock the world.

In other words, after further review, I choose to embrace the time-honored instruction that we should never say never. Someday, perhaps someday soon, there’s a good chance we could see those five, long-suffering letters pop up underneath Duke, Kentucky or Florida on our big screen.

Put that on your bulletin board and remember who said it.

Kalle Oakes was a 27-year veteran of the Sun Journal sports department. He is now sports editor at the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Stay in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.


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