The University of Maine men's basketball team, pictured during a game against Virginia in November 2019, hopes to have more to cheer about during the 2020-21 season. Credit: Andrew Shurtleff / AP

Richard Barron is the first to admit that his University of Maine men’s basketball team is a mystery until it actually faces some opposition this season.

After five games were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Bears’ first chance to test themselves against someone else comes this weekend with back-to-back matchups at America East rival Hartford.

UMaine has only four players on its 16-player roster above the sophomore level and its most veteran competitor, senior forward Miks Antoms, is out for the season with a shoulder injury.

Two All-America East third-team players, Andrew Fleming and Sergio El Darwich, were among the graduates from last winter’s 9-22 club. That duo combined for 29.1 points per game.

That team’s third-leading scorer, forward Nedeljko Prijovic, returned home to Serbia instead of coming back for his senior season out of coronavirus concerns and to help his family by pursuing a professional basketball career.

UMaine lost 63 percent of its scoring from last season. The leading returning scorer is senior forward Vilgot Larsson, who averaged 6.3 points per game.

UMaine must rely on offensive patience to control the shot clock and use ball movement and offensive execution to generate open shots while limiting the number of opponent possessions.

“We’re a team that when our assists are high we’re playing well,” said Barron, whose team ranked third in America East last winter with 13.81 assists per game. “We run a team offense, we’re very evenly distributed in our scoring.”

Where a late start to its season, a youthful roster and offensive uncertainty leave the Black Bears in their continuing quest for upward mobility in America East is unknown as the conference schedule begins.

That’s not as important to Barron as where they stand later in the season, a Bill Belichickian approach to gradual roster building that UMaine supporters hope will lead to a competitive season.

It could be a daunting task.

UMaine was picked to finish tied with Binghamton for last in the 10-school America East by coaches in the preseason poll. That’s no real surprise since the Black Bears have finished eighth each of the last four years and have been no higher than sixth since 2013.

The program has not won a postseason game since 2005 coming off its 61-50 AE quarterfinal setback March 7 at Vermont. That was UMaine’s fifth straight tournament loss to the Catamounts, the preseason favorites again this year.

Returning players like Larsson and Stephane Ingo hope to begin turning that around.

Ingo, a 6-9 redshirt sophomore forward from Mississauga, Ontario, came on strong late last winter, emerging as one of the league’s better rim protectors. The team captain ranked among the league leaders in blocked shots for a team that was second in the conference in that category and in steals.

The 6-8 Larsson is described by Barron as UMaine’s most consistent player, and his scoring punch will be needed on a team that ranked last in the conference last winter with 61.4 points per game.

Others expected to contribute up front for the Black Bears are 6-9 redshirt freshman Ata Turgut, 6-9 sophomore Veljko Radakovic and 6-7 redshirt junior captain Solomon Iluyomade. The latter has been plagued by injury throughout his first two years at UMaine and may be limited in his minutes, particularly early in the season.

Among the newcomers hoping to aid the Black Bears, though he’ll miss at least the season opener against Hartford due to an undisclosed injury, is 6-6 freshman Matt Fleming. The 2019 Mr. Maine Basketball from Bangor played last winter for the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School at West Point, New York.

Fleming may help UMaine from beyond the arc as the Black Bears shot a league-low 28.1 percent from 3-point land last season.

Long-range help also could come from redshirt junior guard Mykhailo Yagodin, who has shown flashes from the perimeter while rebounding from an ACL tear that limited him to one game two years ago.

Other returning guards are sophomores Ja’Shonte Wright-McLeish, Precious Okoh and Taylor Schildroth of Blue Hill.

Two freshmen, 5-11 Lechaun Duhart and 6-1 Adefolarin “Fofo” Adetogun, offer promise at point guard.

“Lechaun has a great, quick release on his shot,” Barron said. “He’s a smaller guard but really a talented scorer and a very unselfish player. [Fofo] looks like a linebacker in the NFL. He’s really built, he’s a tough matchup and he has some versatility.”

Three other freshmen, guard Matias Prock and forwards Wol Maiwen of Auburn and Leyton Bickford of Sanford, hope to contribute as they gain experience.

“I think we have to take a long-term approach to this and hope we can think about some sort of postseason tournament atmosphere where we are really judging how good we are in February or early March and not how good we are today,” Barron said.

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...