The University of Maine men’s basketball team was ready. The team was at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, two days before Thanksgiving, preparing to open the season against the University of Virginia, the last men’s hoops national champion crowned before the 2020 NCAA tournament was one of the first things cancelled at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Then the Black Bears got the news, in the form of the most dreaded two word phrases of the year. Positive test. With that, the Black Bears were no longer playing the No. 4 ranked Cavaliers. They were on buses back to Orono and a two and a half week quarantine.

“That’s not the time you want to take two and a half weeks off. I don’t know that you ever do,” Maine head coach Richard Barron said in a Zoom meeting with media Thursday afternoon.

Virginia, cancelled. Central Connecticut, cancelled. Quinnipiac, cancelled. Northeastern, cancelled. Fordham, cancelled. Five games Maine will not get back. The Black Bears are set to restart the season this weekend, traveling again to Connecticut for a pair of America East Conference games at the University of Hartford Saturday and Sunday afternoon.

The Black Bears are a team with a lot of questions entering this season. Don’t expect many answers, at least not early this season, and maybe not at all. Players get a redshirt season to catch up to the speed of the game. Look at this as a redshirt season for the entire Maine team. They’ll play and learn and improve, but wins and losses are secondary for an inexperienced team trying to navigate through a pandemic.

This is a team that has not had a winning record in conference play since the 2010-11 season. The Black Bears haven’t had a winning record since the 2009-10 season. and haven’t won a conference tournament game since 2005. Last season, Maine improved its overall win total from five in 2018-19 to nine, and its America East win total from three to five. Improvement this year will come, but its unlikely to pick up the pace.

Maine lost its top three scorers from last season. Andrew Fleming and Sergio El Darwich were seniors last season. Nedeljko Prijovic gave up his final season of eligibility to return to Serbia and pursue a professional basketball career. Those three players combined to average just under 40 points per game last season on a team that averaged 61 points per game. That’s 65 percent of the scoring, gone.

The Black Bears are going to score. Players are going to step into new roles and shoot more. Who those players will be on a consistent basis will take some time to figure out. It’s scoring by committee, but nobody’s had a chance to be named to the committee.

“Everybody’s worried about what we look like. We don’t know. We haven’t even scrimmaged. Relative to the competition, it’s very difficult to gauge where we are at this point,” Barron said.

While conference rivals were beginning to play games, the Black Bears were confined to their dorm rooms. Coaches were quarantined in their homes. This weekend’s opponent Hartford has played five games. Boston College, an opponent Maine added this week for a game next Tuesday, has played six games, primarily against top notch competition.

Not that the Black Bears will or should take solace in this fact, but they are not alone in the America East Conference in this regard. Albany, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Vermont haven’t played yet, either. Stony Brook, on the other hand, has played six games entering this weekend’s conference series against Binghamton. While Stony Brook players learned how they handle game situations, Maine players learned exactly how small a dorm room is when you cannot leave it to go anywhere but the bathroom. The universe never passes up an opportunity to remind us that it’s not far and doesn’t care to be.

“Not having any scrimmages, not having any games before you start conferences, is definitely difficult. Again, what’s the alternative? Not playing,” Barron said.

It doesn’t look like it from the frightening upswing in cases over the last month, but Maine has done a better job containing COVID-19 than most states. Barron knows that. He also knows it hasn’t made a difference in getting his team on the court for anything more than a practice.

“That’s a tough situation to be in, to feel like you’re doing everything right, and the reward is you don’t get to play,” Barron said.

Barron said before he enters practice, he reminds himself to swallow the negativity. The court is a safe haven for the Black Bears, where they can focus on basketball and getting better.

“What can you do for these guys? Let’s make sure basketball is something they feel good about for a couple hours today. I really feel like that for my staff, for the players, for our administration. We just want to make sure we’re not passing along anything negative. We’re all dealing with that stress, so trying to make other people feel sorry for you doesn’t alleviate it,” Barron said.

Maine’s men’s basketball roster features six freshmen and a few returning players who saw little or no playing time last season. It’s hard enough to adjust to college basketball. Now do it in a pandemic, when COVID-19 tests are as routine as attending a study hall. It has to make a steep learning curve even steeper, right?

Actually, who knows?

“It’s so hard to make that comparison because there’s nothing normal about this experience. We’re in exam week. We’re playing our first games coming out of exams. Our last exam will be (Friday) afternoon. Then we’ll play about 20 hours after our player gets out of his last exam,” Barron said. “That’s not normal. That’s not ideal, certainly, but it is what it is. That’s just 2020.”

The Black Bears aren’t looking for pity. They’re just looking to play basketball.

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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