Richard Barron compares rebuilding the University of Maine men’s basketball program to a financial adviser seeking the best for a client.
“It’s not something you can speed up,” said the Black Bears’ second-year head coach, whose team opens its season at 7 p.m. Wednesday against NCAA Division I newcomer Merrimack at the Cross Insurance Center. “You put a little away and you get a little better, you save a little bit and you benefit from compounding interest.”
He called the process gradual, messy and hard.
This UMaine team is even less experienced than the 2018-2019 club that finished 5-27 overall, 3-13 in America East. Three of last winter’s most experienced players are now competing elsewhere as graduate transfers. Isaiah White is at the University of Portland, Vincent Eze went to Fairfield and Dennis Ashley attends St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia.
That leaves 6-foot-7 All-America East senior forward Andrew Fleming of Norway and Oxford Hills High School as not only the returning statistical leader but also a mentor for an eclectic Black Bears roster with 12 international students and only four players who have played in more than one game for UMaine.
Four of the 15 Black Bears redshirted last year. Seven are true freshmen.
“We need to stay focused on building every day,” Fleming said, “and if we really think we can get to — the whole goal is the America East championship — then we have to stay focused every day and understand that the little things are what really matter.”
Fleming, who is 12 points short of 1,000 for his career, was a second-team All-America East pick last season. He averaged 13.8 points. 7.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
The preseason all-conference choice will share leadership duties with 6-4 senior guard Sergio El Darwich, who averaged 10.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.0 points in his first season at UMaine. He is at his best attacking the basket off the dribble and adds ball-handling skills for a team that while rangier throughout may be challenged by full-court defenses.
“We think about it as needing to get better day by day and trust what coach Barron tells us to do, which is focus on the details and be locked in on every possession,” El Darwich said.
A third returning starter is 6-8 junior forward Vilgot Larsson (6.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg), who spent much of his time on the perimeter last winter but looks to add a low-post presence to his game. Another veteran is 6-8 senior forward Miks Antoms, who averaged 7.4 minutes in 26 games last season.
Mykhailo Yagodin, a 6-5 sophomore guard from Ukraine, and 6-8 junior forward Nedeljko Prijovic from Serbia are expected to make immediate contributions, as are fellow redshirts Stephane Ingo, a 6-9 freshman from Mississauga, Ontario, and 6-7 sophomore Solomon Iluyomade from England.
New to the program are guards Ja’Shonte Wright-McLeish of Montreal, Peter Stumer from Sweden and Agah Kizilkaya from Denmark; forwards Veljko Radakovic from Serbia and Ata Turgut from Turkey; and walk-on guards Precious Okoh of Brockton, Massachusetts, and Taylor Schildroth of Blue Hill and George Stevens Academy.
“I like our culture off the court,” Barron said. “If you’re around jerks it’s no fun. I don’t care how good they are, I don’t want to do that. I’d rather be happy those other 20 hours. But they’re good students, they’re serious students, they love Maine and they love each other.
“They’re also green and they’re naive, hopefully they’re impressionable. That’s my opportunity [to coach them].”
UMaine plays a 14-game non-conference schedule with nine games on the road, four at the Cross Insurance Center and one at the Portland Expo.
That road schedule includes five guarantee games that will generate income for the UMaine athletic department, beginning with a West Coast road trip to face the University of Portland ($80,000) on Nov. 16 and defending Pac 12 regular-season champion Washington ($90,000) on Nov. 19.
Other guarantee games are at defending national champion Virginia ($82,000) on Nov. 27, Connecticut ($85,000) on Dec. 1 and Massachusetts ($65,000) on Dec. 20.
UMaine plays at the University of Hawaii on Dec. 29, with Hawaii picking up the Black Bears’ airfare and hotel costs.
Other pre-conference road games are at Ivy League favorite Harvard on Nov. 10, defending Colonial Athletic Association tournament champion Northeastern on Dec. 4 and Central Connecticut State on Dec. 7.
UMaine faces Maine Maritime Academy of Castine on Nov. 24 in Portland, while other games in Bangor are against Dartmouth (Dec. 11), Quinnipiac (Dec. 15) and Columbia (Jan. 2).
“Merrimack’s good, Harvard’s really good,” Barron said. “We’re playing the defending national champions. We’re playing Washington, which is top-25 good. Oh my gosh, when are we going to catch our breath?”
UMaine, seeded eighth for last March’s America East tournament, is ranked in the same spot in this year’s preseason coaches poll.
The Black Bears have not won more than four regular-season conference games since 2013 and have dropped their last 15 America East tournament outings since a quarterfinal victory over Boston University in March, 2005.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Barron said, “so if our measurement is wins and losses right now … we’re in trouble because you can get discouraged, you cease to improve, you cease to do the things you need to do to get better. We just need to see little improvements in that on-the-court chemistry.”