The first steps in Richard Barron’s self-described “thousand-mile journey” to rebuild the University of Maine men’s basketball team featured some growing pains as the Black Bears returned to campus this week after a season-opening 0-3 swing through the western United States.
Three games in five nights at Denver University, the University of Utah and the University of San Francisco included some shining moments, including 3-pointers by freshman guard Terion Moss that gave UMaine a 39-38 lead over Denver with 11:05 left in the second half and drew the Black Bears within 55-46 of Utah with 11:58 to play.
UMaine ultimately fell to Denver 63-50 and to Utah 75-61 before struggling in its trip-ending 93-50 loss at San Francisco, but for a team with eight new players learning a new system under an entirely new coaching staff, both highs and lows were predictable.
“All of that’s part of the growth of a young team and learning how to play together and developing a style of play and chemistry and discipline,” said Barron, the former UMaine women’s basketball coach now in his first season with the men’s team. “I’m still as optimistic as I was before I left on this trip and believe in what we’re doing and that we’ll have good results in the end. It’s just that there’s no substitute for experience and we need that right now.
“The great thing about what we witnessed over the weekend is that everything we felt was a problem is correctable and that are things within our control.”
One area where UMaine — which finished 6-26 last winter and 24-100 over the past four seasons — struggled was in shooting the basketball. The Black Bears shot just 36.5 percent from the field overall, 27 percent on 3-pointers and 63.3 percent from the free-throw line during their first three games this fall.
“For all our guys there were some bright spots and for all of our guys I think there were opportunities to get better,” Barron said.
Six different Black Bears averaged at least 20 minutes per game while playing in all three contests out West, led by redshirt junior guard Isaiah White (13.3 points per game, 3.3 rebounds per game) and junior forward Andrew Fleming (9.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg).
White scored a career-high 24 points in the Black Bears’ 75-61 loss at Utah, while Fleming had 14 points and five rebounds while playing a team-high 38 minutes at San Francisco.
Moss came off the UMaine bench to average 9.3 points in 25 minutes per outing, while two other newcomers — junior guard Sergio El Darwich (8.0 ppg, 2.7 assists per game) and sophomore forward Vilgot Larsson (7.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg) — also made significant contributions, as did redshirt junior center Vincent Eze, who averaged 4.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.7 blocks in his first three starts since hip surgery sidelined him for the entire 2017-18 season.
The Black Bears’ depth was tested by a lack of minutes from senior forward Ilija Stojiljkovic, who was poked in the eye during Maine’s final pre-trip practice and did not see game action until an 11-minute stint against San Francisco.
Misha Yagodin, a sophomore guard from Ukraine, played 20 minutes in the opener against Denver but was sidelined for the rest of the trip after suffering what Barron fears may be a season-ending knee injury. Yagodin is expected to undergo an MRI to determine the extent of his injury.
The nonconference schedule doesn’t get any easier for UMaine, which will leave early Friday for a 2 p.m. game Saturday at Atlantic Coast Conference staple North Carolina State.
That’s followed by a visit to Denton, Texas, next Tuesday to face the Mean Green of the University of North Texas, which won the CBI (College Basketball Invitational) postseason tournament last spring and is off to a 4-0 start this season after defeating the University of Hawaii 68-51 on Sunday to win the Rainbow Classic championship in Honolulu, Hawaii.
“We’re not concerned with our record right now,” Barron said. “That’s not what our No. 1 priority is. Our No. 1 priority is improvement, and we’re only going to be able to do that by playing against teams that are going to be able to expose things that we need to work on, and this nonconference schedule certainly does that.”
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