After producing some of the scariest Cinderellas in college basketball, the America East will endure a shake-up in talent for the 2020-21 season. Can Maine Basketball be one of those?
There is a sleeping giant in the America East, and they are hungry for a turnaround 2020-21 season.
The America East has, traditionally, produced some of the more discreet and dangerous Cinderella stories in recent years. The University of Vermont nearly pulled-off first-round upsets over Purdue and Florida State in the 2017 and 2019 NCAA Tournaments, and were well on their way to claiming the 2020 America East title, as well. A buzzer-beater over the Catamounts in the 2018 championship sent UMBC to the tourney, and I do not think I need to tell you what happened afterward.
Undoubtedly, the America East remains one of the most competitive and exciting mid-major conferences in Div. I, particularly among the ones on the east coast. That competition will only grow this coming season, with the NJIT Highlanders coming on board after departing the Atlantic Sun.
But – much like my previous article on Kennesaw State, the bottom team in the Atlantic Sun – the bottom squad in the America East is another scrappy and gritty team looking to improve next season, and they also have reason to believe that they can make some noise.
The Maine Black Bears are one of a handful of teams to never qualify for the NCAA Tournament and have been shut down in the conference quarterfinals five straight seasons by the University of Vermont. The Black Bears finished the 2019-20 season with a 9-22 overall mark – the worst among America East teams – but finished ahead of Binghamton in the conference standings at 5-11.
What is not reflected in those standings, however, is just how close the Black Bears were to be in the upper echelon of the America East. Of Maine’s 22 losses, nine were decided by single digits, with a tenth loss coming down to 10 points. The closest of those losses was a two-point defeat to none other than the University of Vermont.
Maine has the distinction of making one of the most unusual – but effective – hires in Division I basketball in Richard Barron. Hired in 2018, Maine is Barron’s first coaching gig on the men’s side since 1996, when he was an assistant at Div. III institution Sewanee for four seasons. A shift to the women’s side at Sewanee helped launch a 20-year career at the helm of Div. III and Div. I schools.
After leading Sewanee to its first-ever conference championship, Barron moved on to Princeton, leading the Tigers to a share of a conference title in 2005-06. Back-to-back stops as an assistant at high-major universities Baylor – where he served as Kim Mulkey’s associate head coach and recruited Brittney Griner, arguably one of the greatest players in women’s college basketball history – and NC State led Barron to the women’s coaching job at the University of Maine in 2011.
Inheriting a squad that went 4-25 the year prior, it took Barron two years to right the ship, but three straight winning-record seasons – including 23-9 and 26-9 marks and WNIT berths in 2014-15 and 2015-16 – paved the Maine women’s basketball team to success not seen since the early 2000s.
Health issues forced Barron to take a leave of absence halfway through the 2016-17 season, but he returned to the Black Bears in March of 2018 – this time, taking the helm of the men’s basketball team.
While Barron’s first two years have not churned out winning records, they are reflective of the time spent on the sidelines for the women’s squad. It took Barron two seasons to right the ship, but a 17-15 season followed in his third year, followed by two seasons of finishing first in the America East. If this proves anything, it is that Barron knows how to get his teams on the winning side – and speedily, too.
Replacing lost production for Maine Basketball
Barron will have to replace a significant chunk of what made the Black Bears successful on the floor, however, as he loses his top two leading scorers. America East Third-Teamers Sergio El Darwich – the squad’s point guard – and Andrew Fleming – the ninth all-time leading scorer in Maine history – are among those graduating, and Nedeljko Prijovic is the only double-digit scorer returning for the Black Bears at 10.7 points per game.
In addition to Prijovic and his fellow returners, the Black Bears will turn to an incoming class of seven recruits to pick up where Fleming and El Darwich left off. Among those making the commitment to Orono are guard Randell Wiel and forward Leyton Bickford.
A native of the Netherlands, Wiel was, according to the Maine press release, a national champion at the age of sixteen with the Harlem Lakers club team and participated in the 3×3 European Qualifiers with the Dutch national team. Bickford, meanwhile, ranks in the top 50 among the New England Class of 2020 and is the highest-ranked true high school recruit in the state of Maine.
The road through the America East will undoubtedly be difficult for the Black Bears, but they are decidedly a team to keep on the radar, particularly as the top three teams in the conference look to recover from notable hits.
Vermont will be forced to replace one of the top mid-major talents in the nation in Anthony Lamb, Stony Brook’s leading scorer Elijah Olaniyi recently announced his intention to transfer to the University of Miami, and Hartford lost Malik Ellison, the only player to average a double-double in America East play last season at 19.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest.
Again, much like with Kennesaw State, the road is long and tedious, but the Black Bears are itching to remove themselves from the assortment of teams that have not yet qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Barron has yet to prove himself as the head coach of a Div. I men’s team, but if he has ever had the opportunity to shut down any doubters, it is this coming season.
Likewise, if last season proved anything, it is that Maine was just a handful of points away from being among the ranks of Vermont, Stony Brook, and Hartford. Even with Fleming and El Darwich gone, the Black Bears have every reason to be optimistic in 2020-21, particularly as the America East enters a season with no clear-cut forerunner.
With Barron leading the way from the sidelines, Prijovic returning to guide a gritty and hungry squad on the floor, and a recruiting class of at least seven new Black Bears, the University of Maine will have their greatest chance yet to claw through to newfound success and the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.