On the surface the University of Maine’s men’s basketball team seems stuck in a rut.

The Black Bears will take a 5-26 record into an America East quarterfinal at top-seeded Vermont (24-6) at 7 p.m. Saturday.

That’s one fewer win in Coach Richard Barron’s first season than Maine had last year under Bob Walsh, and on a par with Walsh’s four-year mark of 24-100.

But those close to the program have seen growth this season. There have been fewer blowout losses. Fourteen losses have been by less than 10 points, three in overtime. The overhauled roster is expected to be stronger next season under Barron, the former UMaine women’s coach.

“We’re not missing great plays or talent,” Barron said. “What we’re missing is discipline just to do the simple things over and over.”

In Tuesday’s 60-53 loss at New Hampshire, that translated into Maine defenders continually trying to double-team the high post, which opened up UNH’s 3-point shooters. Maine’s nine-point lead with eight minutes to play disappeared rapidly.

“We’re not a very mature team. Regardless of our age, everybody is new in this system,” Barron said.

It didn’t help that Maine was without its leading scorer and rebounder, injured junior forward Andrew Fleming, a former Oxford Hills standout who was named to the America East all-conference second team Friday.

Fleming broke his arm and suffered a concussion after a terrifying fall when he was fouled from behind on a breakaway dunk Feb. 23 at Stony Brook.

Fleming was asked what Maine needs to take the next step and turn late-game leads into wins.

“I think we’ve taken it. You might not see it necessarily this year,” he said. “We’re getting really close. We’re doing much better than last year. We’ve held leads for the majority of the game. We’ve just got to keep working and keep growing.”

One reason for optimism is some of the talent influx is already on a roster that includes players from 12 countries and five continents.

Mykhailo Yagodin, a 6-foot-5 sophomore guard from Odessa, Ukraine, who Barron called “maybe our best scorer, our best shooter,” tore his ACL in the opener at Denver. Solomon Iluyomade, a 6-7 sophomore forward from London, also suffered a season-ending injury in that game. Redshirt freshman Stephane Ingo, a 6-9 center from Canada with a 7-3 wingspan, and 6-8 Nedeljko Prijovic, who had to sit out a season after transferring from Texas State, practiced with the Black Bears all season and will be in the mix next winter.

“I can’t wait to be a part of it,” said freshman point guard Terion Moss of Portland. “Next year we should be really strong. We’ve got incoming players, and really good ones, so it’s going to be a good rebuilding team.”

Maine will return its top five in terms of minutes per game: Fleming (averaging 13.8 points and 7 rebounds), junior guard Isaiah White (13.3 points), junior guard Sergio El Darwich (10.5), sophomore forward Vilgot Larsson (6.9), and Moss (5.6), who started 14 of 28 games, missing three with a concussion.

Add in three more international recruits who committed during the early signing period and Barron believes the level of competition will go up – during games and practices.

“We’re going to have seven new players next year that aren’t playing this year,” he said. “So for everybody who’s getting minutes this year there’s going to be more competition, more size, more talent on the roster, competing for those minutes.”

Under Walsh, Maine’s roster continuity was disrupted by players transferring out of the program.

Barron said he expects all of his potential returnees to stay in Orono.

“I wouldn’t have recruited them otherwise,” he said. “You can’t turn people over every single year. We’re going to win with a system, and in order for a system to be successful, you’ve got to have guys in the system for years to understand it.”

NOTES: Vermont has won 20-plus games for 11 straight years. Vermont beat Maine 73-49 in Orono and 86-63 in Burlington in the regular season. At Vermont, America East Player of the Year Anthony Lamb and first-team guard Ernie Duncan combined for 50 points as Vermont made 11 first-half 3-pointers. … Prior to Fleming, the last Maine second-team all-conference player was 2012-13 – Justin Edwards and Alasdair Fraser. Edward Little product Troy Barnies was the last Black Bear first-team choice in 2010-11 when Maine went 15-15, its last non-losing season.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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