University of Maine men's head coach Richard Barron speaks to an official during a December 2019 basketball game against Connecticut. Credit: Jessica Hill / AP

The University of Maine men’s basketball team opens its 2021-22 season on Tuesday as a big underdog. That may be happening less this year than it has in the past.

Virginia Tech is the host for the 8 p.m. opener. UMaine will get $85,000 to face the Hokies, who were nationally ranked last winter and went to the NCAA Tournament. They were picked to finish fifth in the ACC preseason poll behind Duke, Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia.

It represents the type of major-college opponent the Black Bears have come to play frequently each November and December as a means of preparing for America East Conference play come January and to financially support the athletic department. The team will have three more such games this season, which is fewer than past years in a concession designed to provide the Black Bears a more competitive early schedule with fewer extended road trips.

“It gives this team a chance to feel better about themselves going into conference [play] and I think that’s going to make a big difference,” said Coach Richard Barron.

The Black Bears will get $85,000 to visit Colorado of the Pac-12 on Nov. 15, $75,000 for a Nov. 27 game in Peoria, Illinois, against Bradley University of the Missouri Valley Conference and $70,000 for their Dec. 28 non-conference finale against Rutgers of the Big Ten.

UMaine has averaged at least six so-called guarantee games in each of its last three full seasons, including a West Coast excursion in 2019 for contests at the University of Portland and Washington, an even longer one in 2018 for games against Denver, Utah and San Francisco, as well as games at Boston College and at Texas Tech within four days in 2017. All four guarantee games this season are single-game trips.

While the players and coaches look forward to testing themselves against teams like Virginia Tech, Barron said the reality that the Black Bears have lost nearly all of their guarantee games against during the past decade has led to the program typically entering league play with one of the poorer records in America East.

The UMaine team went 2-7 last spring before ending its season in mid-February due to COVID-19 issues. UMaine is 8-47 overall against Division I non-conference foes since the start of the 2016-17 season.

The more balanced schedule will help players catch up with academic work and keep the team from as frequently playing the underdog, Barron said, adding that if the team goes 3-8 against stiff competition in pre-conference play, “you still feel like you’re 3-8” while rival schools have more early success.

“We want to do that for our kids, too, and I think these next two months are going to be able to provide us some wins,” he said.

The reduction in guarantee games this season has been partially filled by an additional matchup against a non-Division I team from Maine. That brings that total to three beginning with Friday’s 5 p.m. game against the University of Maine at Farmington at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. That’s followed by games Nov. 19 against the University of Maine at Fort Kent and Dec. 18 against the University of New England, both at the Memorial Gymnasium on the Orono campus.

Barron said his longer-term goal is to develop a more regional non-conference schedule with additional home-and-home series against other Division I programs from the northeast.

“As we eventually move into a new facility [on campus], that will be part of our strategic plan,” he said. “We’ll be reducing some of our financial burden of playing at the Cross Center and that will allow us … to bring that down even further so we can play a more regional, competitive Division I schedule.”

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...