After a rough start to the season, Coach Richard Barron and the University of Maine men’s basketball team has gone 3-3 since Jan. 1 and surpassed its season win total from last winter. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

ORONO — The University of Maine’s basketball team had a killer early-season schedule with nine road games in November and December, many of them at far-flung locales. They played two games in Pacific Northwest and then visited defending national champion Virginia. Eight of those road games were losses, by an average of 21 points.

The exclamation mark was the longest trip in college basketball – with the Black Bears traveling more than 5,000 miles for a 91-51 loss at the University of Hawaii on Dec. 29.

But road trips make for team-bonding opportunities for a roster featuring a dozen international players. And it already may be paying dividends.

Maine is 3-3 since the game at Hawaii and coming off consecutive America East victories. At 6-13, the Black Bears already have surpassed their victory total from last season. On Wednesday night, defending conference champion Vermont comes to Bangor to face Maine.

“I’m excited to see us hopefully continue to play well,” said Maine Coach Richard Barron, in his second season as the men’s coach after leading the women’s program for six years. “Regardless of the outcome of the game, I want to see us continue to do the things that we’ve made progress on for the last week and a half or so.”

Last week, senior co-captain Sergio El Darwich led the way to conference victories over UMass-Lowell (104-98 in overtime) and Binghamton (86-63). With his parents watching him play for the first time in five years, the Lebanon native averaged 31 points, 9 assists and 7.5 rebounds and was named Player of the Week by both America East and CollegeSportsMadness.com.

The other senior co-captain, Andrew Fleming, leads the team with 15.3 points per game, just ahead of El Darwich’s 14.0. Fleming, who starred at Oxford Hills, is the only U.S.-born starter.

The others hail from Ukraine (Mykhailo Yagodin) , Sweden (Vilgot Larsson) and Serbia (Nedeljko Prijovic). El Darwich and Prijovic both played high school basketball in Maine at Lee Academy, under current Black Bears assistant coach Igor Vrzina.

The roster also includes players from Denmark, Turkey, Latvia, England and Canada.

“It’s helpful when you have a lot of guys from different cultures,” said Prijovic, a 6-foot-8 junior redshirt forward who is one of two players (with Fleming) to start all 19 games. “Everybody brings something new.”

The rugged non-conference road schedule in November and December generated the revenue necessary to keep Maine’s program afloat – the Black Bears received checks between $65,000 and $90,000 per game for serving as visiting chum for college basketball’s sharks.

Barron tried to turn the trips into an opportunity for team bonding by visiting such landmarks as Pike Place Market in Seattle and Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head and Waikiki Beach in Hawaii.

“Sometimes I may be a little too much of the high school history teacher for them,” Barron said. “But we want to give them a chance to see cities, to travel, to experience things. Going to Pearl Harbor, for example, for those guys, that’s a really powerful moment. Sailors who died, most of them were their age.”

The team also visits water parks, bowling alleys and movie theaters. Sometimes, while on the road, Barron takes his players to visit children’s hospitals. So although Maine may have lost by 40 to Hawaii, the Rainbow Warriors picked up the travel tab and provided the Black Bears with lasting memories.

“Pearl Harbor, I don’t even know how to describe it,” Prijovic said. “We have a lot of international guys, so a lot of us didn’t know about what went on there. It was a nice experience to know what actually happened.”

Such bonding can translate to success on the court, particularly for a team like Maine that eschews the dribble-drive-motion offense currently in vogue for a crisp passing attack that relies heavily on screens away from the ball.

The Black Bears are ranked fifth among all Division I teams in their field goal to assist ratio of 64.9 percent. That’s a lot of catch-and-shoot baskets. The nearest America East foe is Albany at 64th with 56.6 percent.

“I think there has to be something contrarian about what we do,” Barron said. “We can’t do what Connecticut does and expect to be better. They’re going to outspend us.”

Maine has 10 players averaging 10 or more minutes per game. Eleven different players have found their way into the starting lineup. When everybody contributes, it’s easier to buy in to Barron’s system.

“Last year was more like introducing us to system and everything,” said Prijovic, who sat out the winter after transferring from Texas State. “It didn’t go as well as we hoped. This year, we’re doing way better. We are more familiar with the system. We’re still learning, but especially after those last two games, our confidence is up and we’re looking forward to the game against Vermont.”

When Barron coached the Maine women, his first big recruiting class won just four games their first season, which ended with a frightening bus crash. The following three seasons Maine won 17, 24 and 26 games. A winning culture that had blossomed under Cindy Blodgett and Amy Vachon had returned.

Now Barron is working on the same sort of turnaround for the men’s program, which has gone a decade without a winning season. He speaks of a Japanese philosophy called Kenzai that emphasizes small, daily, incremental improvements.

Over the previous four seasons, 19 players have quit playing or transferred out of Orono. Barron’s predecessor, Bob Walsh, amassed a four-year record of 24-100.

The Black Bears are improving. Wednesday night is another chance to measure their progress.

“If the expectation is instant success, then everybody is going to be disgruntled and leave because they’re not getting a payoff,” Barron said. “It’s hard. It takes a lot of time.”

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