Richard Barron enjoys playing the guitar and appreciates how much better he is at it now than he was as a novice.
“There are chords and patterns I can do in my sleep, but when I started learning them they were very slow and methodical and didn’t quite sound clean,” the University of Maine men’s basketball coach said recently. “It just takes time and practice and with that you tend to make those right decisions.”
Barron equates the frustration of his earliest experiences with the guitar with the ups and downs his players face as they adjust to a new system and a new coach, who previously guided the Black Bears women’s basketball team from 2011 to 2017.
“A lot of what we’re asking them to do is new,” said Barron, whose team takes a 2-11 record into Saturday’s 3 p.m. game against Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. “I would guess that most of them haven’t played for someone who coaches like me. For the first time this is going to be a very different sort of approach, and with that you’re going to get those ‘two steps forward, one step back’ sort of ebbs and flows to every day, every game and every practice.
“As long as we maintain the momentum and trajectory toward getting better, I think we’ve got some bright days ahead of us, even in this season.”
There are signs that the Black Bears are adapting to Barron’s approach, even if it isn’t yet reflected in the win-loss record.
Consider this Christmas Eve Twitter post from Isaiah White, the redshirt junior guard from Ellicott City, Maryland, who is in his second year at UMaine after previous stops at North Carolina-Asheville and Harford Community College.
“I’ve learned so much about basketball this year, it’s actually crazy,” posted White, the Black Bears’ leading scorer at 15.2 points per game.
UMaine has faced a rigorous non-conference schedule to date, with its 12 Division I opponents combining for a 91-55 record. Nine of them have records of .500 or better, led by the University of San Francisco (12-1), North Texas (12-1) and 20th-ranked North Carolina State (11-1).
Nine of those 12 Division I games have been on the road, where the Black Bears are winless.
The lone Division I victory so far was a 75-68 double-overtime win against Fordham on Dec. 4 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
UMaine is 1-3 in overtime contests with losses in extra time at North Texas and St. Peter’s preceding last Saturday’s 93-90 double-overtime setback at home to Central Connecticut State.
“The reality is our record is 2-11 right now,” Barron said. “We’ve lost three games in overtime or double overtime, that’s three free throws away from five wins and if we were 5-8 people would be talking very differently.
“We’re not that far away, and that doesn’t include games where we might have played well for 32, 35 minutes but had a really bad five minutes.”
Central Connecticut State’s survival of UMaine was much closer than its previous two meetings with the Black Bears in 2016 and 2017 when the Blue Devils won by an average of 24 points.
“I think that’s where fans get lost in the process, they just look at the wins and losses,” CCSU head coach and former NBA player Donyell Marshall said after Saturday’s game. “They don’t look at how hard teams are coming out and playing and how disciplined they are. That team is a very disciplined team.”
Sergio El Darwich, UMaine’s junior guard from Dekweneh, Lebanon — via Lee Academy and Western Texas College — wowed the crowd last Saturday with game-extending 3-pointers at the end of the second half and first overtime. He has witnessed growing team chemistry amid some on-court growing pains.
“We’re a close group,” he said. “We hang out together every day, we want the best for each other and it’s a matter of time until we get there and start winning games.”
UMaine has non-conference road tests left at 6-5 Rutgers and Jan. 2 at 8-4 Brown before it opens America East play at defending conference champion Maryland Baltimore County (7-6) on Jan. 5 and then hosts 2018 AE regular-season top seed Vermont (9-4) on Jan. 9.
The Black Bears went 3-13 in conference play last winter and have not won more than four America East games in a season since the 2012-2013 campaign.
“I think that team (UMaine) is going to surprise some people when it comes to America East play,” said Marshall.