During a pandemic preseason that has seemed endless, University of Maine men’s basketball coach Richard Barron said he’s felt the need to be like John Coffey – the gentle giant inmate with mystical healing powers from Stephen King’s book “The Green Mile.”
Barron reminds himself of the importance of “just being able to swallow that negativity and not pass it on” before interacting with his team.
For Barron and the Black Bears, the preseason appears to be coming to a merciful end. Maine is scheduled to play its first games of the season Saturday and Sunday at the University of Hartford.
When the Black Bears look around the college landscape, even on their own Orono campus, it would be easy to harbor resentment. Other winter teams at the school have already started their seasons, although the men’s hockey team was placed in quarantine Thursday because of a positive COVID-19 test.
The men’s basketball squad was the only UMaine team that had to quarantine and not practice during the university’s self-imposed two-week “pause” of athletic activities from Nov. 24 to Dec. 8. That’s because one member of the team had a presumed positive COVID-19 test two days prior to a scheduled game against the University of Virginia. Even though all members of the team – players and staff – tested negative the next day, they stayed locked down.
“We were isolated in our dorm rooms, or apartments, or for me, on my couch,” Barron said. “We didn’t practice for a two-and-a-half weeks, 18 days, from our last practice before we were supposed to play and our next practice Dec. 9.”
It goes on.
Hartford (3-2), a fellow member of the America East, has already played five games and is on a three-game winning streak. Maine is coming off a 9-22 (5-11 conference) season and hasn’t even had a scrimmage.
But Barron, in his third season as the men’s head coach, said dwelling on how the pandemic has upset the college season doesn’t do any good. Plus, he said, it shows a lack of perspective and respect for the many people who have lost jobs – or worse.
“We just want to make sure we’re not passing on anything negative. We’re all dealing with that stress so certainly trying to make everybody feel sorry for you doesn’t alleviate it,” Barron said.
What will help is getting some games in, said Stephane Ingo, a 6-foot-9 redshirt sophomore forward from Mississauga, Ontario, who is already a co-captain.
“It’s excitement, you know, to be able to play soon and do what we love,” said Ingo, who led Maine in blocks last season and came on strong at the end of the season with five straight double-figure rebounding games. “We’re very excited to play someone else and see where we are as a team.”
Ingo and leading returning scorer Vilgot Larsson (6.3 points per game), whom Barron called “our most consistent player and the one with the most minutes,” are probably the two greatest known quantities on a roster with seven new players.
The top three scorers from last season’s squad are gone. Sergio El Darwich (14.9 points) and Andrew Fleming (14.2 points) were seniors. Nedeljko Prijovic (10.7 points) returned to his native Serbia in late October to pursue a professional career instead of staying for his redshirt senior season.
“I think our strength is going to be having a lot of guys contribute on a given night,” Ingo said. “I feel we have a deep team, a lot of guys who can make an impact.”
Ingo said he personally will look to be more assertive with his offense to boost his scoring average from 4.5 points per game, which improved to 7.3 over the final 10 games.
Of the seven newcomers, which include Maine high school products Leyton Bickford (Sanford), Matt Fleming (Bangor) and Wol Maiwen (Edward Little), two transfer guards could make an immediate impact.
Expect Adefolarin Adetogun and LeChaun Duhart to share and get ample minutes in the backcourt. Adetogun, a redshirt freshman, who goes by Fofo or Fo, is a powerfully built 6-foot-1 guard who grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan, and transferred from Division I Missouri-Kansas City, where he sat out last season with an injury. Barron said Adetogun had already received a waiver to play immediately for Maine even before the NCAA made the decision to allow players transferring during the pandemic to not have to sit out a season. The 5-11 Duhart spent his second season of junior college ball at Western Wyoming, helping lead that team to a 30-4 record and the Region IX championship last season.
“LeChaun has got a great, quick release on his shot. He’s a smaller guard but really a talented scorer, a very unselfish player,” Barron said. “Fofo’s a beast. He looks like a linebacker in the NFL. He’s really built and is a tough matchup and versatility. But those guys are new to the system so we need to show a little bit of patience with them.”
Ingo said from what he’s seen in practice, Maine is shooting the ball well. Last year, Maine ranked last in the nine-team America East in scoring (61.4 points per game), shooting (40.7 percent) and 3-point shooting (a dreadful 28.1 percent).
“Honestly, I feel like our team is very bought-in this year. We know what we want to do on offense and we try to stay in that,” Ingo said. “We’re very close on and off the court, and I think that will show when we play.”
NOTES: Fleming is out for an unspecified amount of time because of an injury. Barron would not say in how Fleming is injured. … Senior Miks Antoms, a 6-foot-8 post player and the only player on the roster entering his fourth season in Orono, will miss the season because of a shoulder injury. Barron said the shoulder is scheduled to be surgically repaired in January. … Maine has picked up an extra game before the Christmas holiday. It will be at Boston College at noon Tuesday. BC was supposed to have hosted California. That game was postponed by mutual decision.