University of Maine at Farmington’s Isaac Witham (11) draws a foul from Thomas College’s Justin Butler (14) at Thomas College in Waterville in January. (Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel)

Two years ago, they had potential. Last season, they were on the rise.

The players on the University of Maine at Farmington men’s basketball team know the time has arrived to turn that progress into wins — and some hardware as well.

“We feel really confident,” said Skowhegan’s Issac Witham, a junior forward. “This year, we honestly think we’re right up there with Husson. We think we’re definitely one of the better teams in the NAC.”

The North Atlantic Conference coaches feel the same way. They ranked the Beavers second in the preseason poll behind Husson, and for good reason. UMF returns the top five scorers from a team that went 14-13 and reached the conference semifinals, and after saying they were shooting for a conference title last year, the players and coaches alike weren’t about to change up their goals.

“They’re much the same,” said coach Dick Meader, whose team brings back leading scorers Riley Robinson (15.2 points per game) of Dixfield, Milani Hicks (14.6), Bill Ruby (13.6), Witham (12.2) and Amir Moss (10.1). “Getting to the playoffs and having a bye. Getting the home court (for the) final four and then winning that. The normal progression of steps you need to take to be the conference champion.

“I don’t know if we’ve arrived, but we certainly have improved. We are a good team. We just have to complete the process.”

That process began two years ago, when the Beavers leaned on a freshman core after a dreadful 3-22 season, and it accelerated last season. UMF got a boost from the arrival of Hicks, a transfer from Colby-Sawyer, and kicked its growth into overdrive by winning nine of its final 10 regular season games — a streak that included a 74-65 victory over eventual conference champion New England College.

“That was pretty big for us,” Witham said. “During that span we beat every single team in the conference, so we knew going into the playoffs any team we were going to play, we had a chance to beat them.”

The team also got a spark from the return of Moss, who missed the start of the season.

“He knows how to win, knows how to do the little things,” Hicks said. “Getting him back, it really helped initiate that win streak that we had.”

The Beavers kept the roll going into the postseason, knocking off Thomas in the quarterfinals on the road before falling to New England in the semis.

“Taking that next step and getting a playoff win was definitely big for them,” Hicks said. “It was also big for me because, the year before, I also lost in the first round. So it was good to get that first win, and now we can just move forward.”

To even bigger games and bigger stages, the Beavers hope. They know they have the pieces; few teams will have an advantage over UMF in continuity, and the Beavers have a versatile mix with inside scorers like Robinson and Hicks, and perimeter threats in Ruby, Witham and Moss.

“With everyone back, we’re really just building on top of the year before,” Witham said. “We move the ball well, we’re a pretty dangerous team when we’re moving the ball well and we’re playing with one another. I think it helps being with the guys for so long, we pretty much know everyone’s game, what their pros are, what they can do.”

As the freshmen and sophomores have become juniors and seniors, a sense of maturity and knowing how to win has kicked in as well.

“We know we can help with the young kids. Coach doesn’t need to constantly be on the young kids,” Hicks said. “We can tell them what to do ahead of time. Everything moves more smoothly, and it translates into getting more done in practice and being more prepared for games.”

They won’t be able to sneak up on teams this year, but the team hasn’t felt the weight of any heightened expectations.

“I wouldn’t say there’s any pressure,” Witham said. “We’ve had the same goal to win the NAC championship for the last few years. Ever since we came in our freshman year, that was pretty much the goal.”

Hicks took it a step further. As far as he’s concerned, the Beavers are still trying to fend off some doubters.

“I think we really have nothing to lose, because teams like Husson, they’re always predicted to be at the top. (At) UMF, we’ve never been like that,” he said. “So I think we all think people are still underestimating us. We thought that we should be No. 1.”

So, OK, the Beavers aren’t feeling any pressure. Urgency, however, is a different matter. They know these opportunities to combine talent, experience and continuity don’t come around often.

“We don’t want to take for granted what we have now,” Witham said. “There’s definitely an urgency. We want to win now.”