Coach Richard Barron and the University of Maine men’s basketball team hope to open their season Wednesday against Virginia at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

It’s called Bubbleville and it’s where the University of Maine men’s and women’s basketball teams will start their seasons.

Tentatively.

The UMaine men’s team is scheduled to play No. 4 ranked Virginia, Wednesday at 2 p.m., at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut. Over 11 days, men’s and women’s college basketball teams will reside and play games completely on the casino property in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

But many teams from across the country have had to pause their season – a phrase becoming common parlance in college hoops – because of positive cases among players and coaches. Nine men’s teams that were supposed to play at Mohegan Sun have already withdrawn.

“I would say it feels very uncertain. There’s a lot very much up in the air still and we’ve seen that in the last 24 hours,” said UMaine Coach Richard Barron in a phone interview Monday en route to Connecticut. “Like everybody, we’re anxious and nervous. For all the coaches, certainly the ones I’ve talked to, we’re all far more concerned about logistics and safety and just trying to give our kids a chance to do something fun.

“The sleepless night I had last night was not because of being worried about how we were going to execute a game plan.”

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Virginia is still the defending national champion. The Cavaliers won the title in 2019. The 2020 NCAA Division I tournament was canceled because of virus concerns. Last season, also on the day before Thanksgiving, Virginia beat Maine, 46-26, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Maine is also scheduled to play Central Connecticut State on Friday (7 p.m.). The team will then stay at the casino hotel before traveling to nearby Hamden, Connecticut for a Sunday game at Quinnipiac.

Maine’s women’s team, picked to finish first in the America East preseason coaches’ poll, is scheduled to open its season Saturday at 10 a.m. against No. 6 Mississippi State. That game is part of the four-team Air Force Reserve Women’s Challenge, one of several multi-team tournaments being played in Bubbleville. The Maine-Mississippi State winner will play Sunday at 3 p.m., against the winner of Connecticut versus Quinnipiac. The consolation game is Sunday at 9:30 a.m.

The Bubbleville games will be played at the 10,000-seat arena that is home to the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. Temporary courts will also be erected for practices and possibly some games.

Teams will have their own floor in the casino’s 1,600-room hotel to keep them segregated. Team personnel will be tested upon arrival and throughout their stay.

While Maine’s men’s team has not had a single positive test so far this season, many other college teams have had to halt activities because of positive COVID tests. Men’s teams from Albany, Baylor, Delaware, Florida, Iona, Massachusetts, St. Bonaventure, Siena, and Vermont have withdrawn from Bubbleville games.

Last week, Barron posted a video to social media where he strummed a guitar and sang reworked lyrics to Train’s 1999 hit “Meet Virginia.” Barron’s version referenced Bubbleville and said “in Maine they will be partying; it will feel like destiny, our win on Thanksgiving Eve.”

The Black Bears were 9-22 last season (5-11 in America East), the most wins for the program since going 11-19 in 2012-13. Maine’s last winning season was 2009-10 when it went 19-11. Virginia (23-7 in 2019-20) is picked to finish first in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Barron said he has not decided on a starting lineup or even a playing rotation. The Black Bears’ top three scorers and rebounders from last season are gone. Sergio El Darwich (14.9 points) and Andrew Fleming (14.2 ppg) were seniors. Third-leading scorer Nedeljko Prijovic (10.7 ppg) returned to his native Serbia in late October to pursue a professional career instead of staying for his red-shirt senior season.

Maine’s leading returning scorer is senior forward Vilgot Larsson of Stockholm, Sweden, who averaged 6.3 points.

Redshirt sophomore Stephane Ingo of Missassauga, Ontario, is a 6-9 shot-blocking forward. He started the last 12 games in 2019-20, averaging 4.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.

Also returning this season are Miks Antoms, a 6-8 four-year player from Latvia, whose best scoring games of his career have come against non-Division I programs; sophomore guard Precious Okoh of Brockton, Massachusetts, who played in 30 games with four starts last season; Ja-Shonte Wright-McLeish, a 6-4 guard from Montreal (30 games, eight starts), and Mykhailo Yagodin, a 6-5 guard from Odessa, Ukraine (27 games, eight starts).

Among the seven newcomers to the team are three freshmen from Maine high schools: Wol Maiwen, who led Edward Little to the 2018 Class AA title as a junior and did a prep school year at Williston Northampton last season; Matthew Fleming who led Bangor to the 2019 AA title and spent last season at the United States Military Academy Prep School; and Leyton Bickford, a 6-6 forward and 2020 graduate of Sanford High. Sophomore guard Taylor Schildroth of Blue Hill (George Stevens Academy) saw limited time last season for Maine.


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