ORONO — “Finish strong.”

Richard Barron stood at midcourt in The Pit, once the home court of the University of Maine’s basketball teams, and watched as his players finished a 3-point shooting drill. They were nearing the final seconds of the five-minute drill and were clearly tired.

“Finish strong,” Barron repeated, his voice loud over the roar of the large fans situated in the open doorways.

Wednesday marked the opening practice for UMaine’s men’s basketball team, Barron’s first as its head coach after making the unusual transition from the Black Bears’ women’s basketball program. There was a lot of energy, a lot of anticipation, a lot of sweat, and a lot of learning to absorb.

On this day, the focus was on defense as the Black Bears worked on the match-up zone that Barron used so effectively as coach of the women’s team. In one drill, there were five defensive players guarding eight offensive players, the goal to get them to understand the spots in the zone that they need to cover. It’ll take time to learn it properly, and they know it.

“We need to understand our goal is to be playing our best basketball in March,” said Andrew Fleming, the standout 6-foot-7 junior forward from South Paris and Oxford Hills High. “If we can get better every day, we know we’ll be able to compete when the time comes … We just need to realize it’s going to take time.”

Maine is coming off a 6-26 season and the worst four-year stretch in school history, with 24 wins and 100 losses. Given Barron’s success in turning around the women’s program, fans might expect an immediate improvement in the men’s fortunes.

“Obviously, we want our fans and followers to be patient with us, but it’s more important that we’re patient with ourselves, that our internal expectations need to not be so result-oriented but more process-oriented,” said Barron, who hasn’t coached since January 2017, when he was forced to take a medical leave of absence. “We need to worry about improving every day. We need to worry about our attitude and our work ethic.

“I have zero doubt that our strategies and methodologies will work, but we’ve got to have enough stick-to-itiveness and grit to get through those moments when the results lag.”

Barron coached the women’s program for seven seasons, compiling a record of 85-89 with two regular-season America East championships. He became ill during the 2016-17 season, suffering from extreme dizziness and disorientation, and was placed on medical leave on Jan. 6, 2017, with Amy Vachon taking over the women’s program.

After months of testing, a small fracture was discovered in his skull near his inner right ear. He underwent surgery that summer.

Barron returned to the school on Dec. 1, 2017, as a temporary assistant to former athletic director Karlton Creech. At the time, he said he wanted to return to coaching, but didn’t know how or when.

On March 5, he was named men’s basketball coach, replacing Bob Walsh. It is a rare move at the NCAA Division I level – one of the few instances was when LaSalle’s Speedy Morris left that school’s women’s program for the men’s program in 1986.

Barron doesn’t see any difference in coaching men or women.

“It’s still about dealing with people,” he said. “It’s basketball. The ball’s round, the rim’s 10 feet high. There are five people from your team on the floor at any given time.”

Asked if he was anxious about returning to the court for the first time in about 20 months, he said, “Since I took the job, things haven’t slowed down. I just got off the road recruiting for a couple of weeks, and then you ride into the practice. There’s still more recruiting to be done over the next few weekends, and then the games start and you’re on the road. So it comes at you pretty fast.

“I believe in what we’re doing. I believe we’ll get results. I don’t feel any sort of immediate pressure that those results have to be manifest in the first practice, the first game, the nonconference schedule. This is a long play, so we have to be able to keep our eyes on long-term goals and work to improve every day. And, because of that, I feel less anxious about the moment.”

Physically, he said he feels fine, other then needing “to get back in shape.”

Maine opens its season Nov. 6. The first six games are on the road – three out west at Denver, Utah and San Francisco, then on to North Carolina State, North Texas and Quinnipiac. The home opener at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center is Nov. 28 against Princeton. It’s a daunting schedule, but one that Barron welcomes.

“It’s through those challenges that we’re going to get better,” he said. “And so, again, if we were scheduling just to get wins, we could bring a different strategy. But we’re trying to elevate our program, and one of the ways to get better is to face adversity and challenges on the road.”

The players were looking forward to their first practice with Barron.

“There was a lot of excitement, a lot of anticipation,” said junior guard Isaiah White, who averaged 11.1 points per game last year. “We’ve been preparing for this all offseason. So there was new energy, more focus.”

It was three hours of hard work. “It was really exciting for me to get going,” said Terion Moss, a freshman guard from Portland High. “It’s different from our practices in high school, more up-tempo.”

White sees this as a new start for everyone: “You can’t dwell on the past. New staff, new team, new year.”

Barron agrees.

“Each of our players is like a rookie,” said Barron. “It’s their first time with me. It’s not like one of our freshmen can come up to one of our seniors and say, ‘What does Coach mean when he says something for the first time?’ They’re figuring it out together. However, there’s solidarity in that moment as well. We’re all in this together, we’re all starting from the same spot. And I think we all appreciate how we need each other to be successful.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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