ORONO — Richard Barron has referred to his first year coaching the University of Maine men’s basketball team as a journey that’s going to take some time. Well, the Black Bears are certainly putting in the miles to start it.

Maine opens its season Tuesday night in Denver, some 2,000 miles away from its campus, and then heads to Utah and San Francisco to complete the three-game swing. But that pales in comparison to where the journey actually began.

The Black Bears took a trip to Costa Rica – some 4,500 miles from Orono – in August, not only getting their first taste of Barron’s coaching philosophy, but more importantly learning about each other.

“We had about six days where we didn’t have anything going on,” said junior forward Andrew Fleming of South Paris and Oxford Hills High, who averaged 9.7 points and 5.3 rebounds last year. “Being away from basketball, as a team, you don’t get to do that very often. When we’re at school, there’s always basketball going on. I think this was good for us.”

Barron, the former UMaine women’s head coach, agreed: “It was a chance for an entirely new team to learn about each other. We had 10 days of practice on campus before going, and there was the educational and cultural experience of being in a country that nobody had ever been to before. And it was a chance to kind of redefine what the expectations were for our program and what the culture would be.”

Maine, which went 6-26 last year and won only 24 games the past four years, has eight new players on its roster. So it’s important that the players not only know each other on the court but also off it.

“We wanted to see how guys picked things up,” said assistant coach Kevin Reed, a former Maine player. “And in a different country, we wanted to see the bonding with teammates off the court. I think the off-court bonding certainly adds to the camaraderie of the team throughout the year.”

Maine played three games in Costa Rica – two against the University of Calgary, which won the Canadian collegiate title – but also visited a rain forest, went zip-lining and visited the Crocodile Bridge, home to some of the world’s largest crocodiles. The trip was paid for with the $90,000 received as a guarantee from Utah.

“We had a lot of fun together,” said junior guard Isaiah White, who averaged 11.1 points last year, tops among returning players. “It was a great way to set the energy, set the tone, for the season.”

Barron also had the team visit an orphanage. “It was a chance for … our guys to understand how lucky we are that we can come back to this place appreciative of what we have,” said Barron, “to be grateful for the life we have and the opportunities we have at this university.”

Barron, of course, is returning to coaching after a medical condition that forced him to step away from the Maine women’s basketball program. He had coached the Black Bears women’s program for seven seasons, taking them from afterthoughts in America East to two regular-season championships.

But early in the 2016-17 season he began suffering from extreme dizziness and disorientation. He was placed on medical leave on Jan. 6, 2017, with assistant Amy Vachon taking over. Barron was eventually diagnosed with a small fracture in his skull near his inner right ear. He underwent surgery that summer.

He returned to the school as a temporary assistant to former athletic director Karlton Creech on Dec. 1, 2017, always hoping to return to coaching. That opportunity came on March 5, when he was named the men’s coach at Maine, replacing Bob Walsh.

Now he’s in charge of rebuilding a men’s program that has never advanced to the NCAA tournament. He has stressed throughout the preseason that it’s going to take some time.

“Some days are better then others,” he said. “What we’re striving for in this long, long, long journey is consistency. The changes that we’re trying to make are things that take months, if not seasons or years. So it feels messy at the beginning at times but you’ve got to be consistent and you can’t expect results too fast, otherwise the frustration prevents them from improving.”

And improving is all that matters now, not wins or losses. Barron said the players are learning an entirely new way of doing things. “It’s like speaking a different language in everything we do,” he said. “The way we screen, the way we read screens, when we dribble, how we dribble, what shots we’re looking for, where, when, spacing … everything we do is different from what most of these kids have done before.”

He said he’s seen players progress, then regress, in practices, but is encouraged by their work ethic.

“It’s all about getting better every day,” said Barron. “And you can’t speed up the process just because the schedule says you’re playing Utah. The time it takes is the time it takes.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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