I’ve never been to Maine. It’s more than likely that you haven’t either. Best I can tell, it’s a unique idyll adorned with badass wildlife, a killer celestial clown, a rabid St. Bernard, a bullied pre-teen with psychic abilities, and more lighthouses than you can wrap your head around.
If you’re similarly only acquainted with Maine via the sparse pop culture references and lobster-laden stereotypes that tend to abound, then Maine probably isn’t a state you’ve ever really associated with high-caliber basketball.
Indeed, while the University of Maine — the state’s only D-I institution — has firmly cemented its ice hockey and football legacies, its men’s basketball program has never made the NCAA Tournament, and hasn’t won more than eight games in a season since 2013.
I won’t fault you when you tell me that you haven’t ever seen a Maine basketball game. Hell, I won’t fault you if you tell me you don’t plan on it either, since that last paragraph didn’t exactly make a convincing argument to tune in to a Black Bears basketball game.
Yet despite all the program’s faults, hiccups and losses (and there have been plenty of those), there’s plenty of reason to believe that this might be the season that Maine finally gives us a reason to pay attention.
One of the best reasons is the man in charge of the Black Bears: Richard Barron. Last week, I spoke with Barron, and I picked his brain about a variety of topics that ranged from his intriguing program to his ideas about recruiting.
Now, for those who aren’t aware, Barron was the head coach of the women’s basketball team at the University of Maine for almost six years when, in 2016, he had to step down from his position due to health reasons. The health concern was, as John Feinstein of the Washington Post writes:
It was a tiny hole, just above [Barron’s] right ear. The hole was the reason [Barron] had become so sensitive to sound and why he was having equilibrium problems. He had corrective surgery in Los Angeles in July. The hole was literally spackled shut.
Ultimately, Barron was hired to take over the men’s basketball program, and he completed his first full season as head coach of the team last year. The Black Bears’ 5-27 mark left much to be desired, but Barron felt that his transition between the two leagues was “pretty easy, pretty seamless,” thanks largely to how typical transitions deal with “moving to a different place, different school, different administration,” whereas this current move didn’t force him to move his family or life. He only had to move down the hall.
“The transition to men’s basketball was unexpected,” he said. “[It] also was an opportunity to stay in a community that I really liked and felt like I can make a difference in.”
Barron’s willingness to return to Maine after stepping down from the women’s team illustrates his commitment to a program that has its fair share of struggles — after all, you try getting a recruit to choose Orono over Miami, San Diego or any place that averages a high of above freezing in January.
Barron respects the unique energy within the state. He finds pleasure in both the personal and professional elements that it offers.
“It’s a great place to raise a family,” he said. “It’s safe, strong values, good education. Professionally, it’s a place where I feel appreciated and I feel like my work’s important, and that really matters.”
When ruminating on preconceived ideas of Maine the state — ideas of a place grounded in a rural, scenic, hard-working, no-frills lifestyle — it is quite fitting that the state’s flagship university has a basketball team that has a style of play that mimics those characteristics.
After years of an up-tempo offensive attack instituted by Bob Walsh, Richard Barron’s predecessor, the latter instituted a notably slower offensive scheme in his first year. In fact, it was the 25th slowest last season, according to KenPom. To some, this can be lovingly referred to as “plague ball.”
To Barron, it’s “a deliberate style of basketball.” Unsurprisingly, Barron emphasizes efficiency.
“When you play at a pace where you don’t make good decisions, you’re playing too fast,” he said.
However, it’s how Barron goes about building his team that is perhaps the most interesting element. Going into next season, only three of the players on his roster are from the United States. The other 12 hail from places as diverse as Serbia, Denmark, Ukraine, Turkey, and Latvia. When discussing this with Barron, I asked him about this recruiting strategy, to which he gave an explanation that seems to encapsulate what goes through the mind of every mid-major coach:
“European players aren’t shaped by the established recruiting infrastructure, where everybody goes out and everybody is seen and everybody plays on circuits and everybody is ranked. And what do they do when they rank them? They put a number by them and then they tell them what level or something they’re supposed to go. And so, then they only talk to schools that are at that level, right? They’re not interested in someone who’s considered low-major-plus because they’re considered high-major-minus, right? And so what does that do? It just keeps everybody where they are.
I don’t like the idea that someone tells me what kind of players I should get. I like to be able to say ‘Look, I have an expectation of what we need in order to compete at the level that we wanna play at, and I need to go find it. Wherever I find it, I need to find that. Not settle for something that’s less than what I think we should get.
We find really good players who are excited about the opportunity and who are grateful for the opportunity and it’s with that gratitude that they come to Maine and want to work hard.”
Barron’s candor when discussing his strategy of recruiting to a mid-major school seemed to perfectly capture the innovative ways coaches have to work around the challenges present within their situations. Thus, it only made sense to ask Barron his thoughts on one controversial issue that is sure to spark adaptation from coaches at all levels of the sport: the California name, image, and likeness bill that was recently signed into law.
When asked about his thoughts on the law and what it means for the sport going forward, Barron had the following to say:
“I don’t see the business side that Jay Bilas often refers to. We don’t see those millions of dollars in constant facility upgrades and all that stuff. You know, that’s not the world that we live in. So, I like what I kind of consider a little bit of the purity of college athletics, where you’re going to college first and foremost to go to college, and you’re playing a sport you love and representing your school. I like that idea.
That doesn’t mean I can’t relate to, you know, the other people and what they say. I do. I think it’s messy. I think it’s complicated. We probably need to figure out a way to let somebody profit off their name or their likeness. And I think we have to accept that, while there may be inequities with that, and that may steer people towards certain schools, they already do that. The Power 5 are already dominant in terms of all the extravagance they have.”
So while Barron didn’t explicitly take a side here, he did note that it doesn’t seem like allowing players to profit off of their name, image, and likeness won’t create greater inequities for mid-majors than are already present, and he did go on to state that, “At least it’s above board, at least you know what’s coming. Anything to kind of clean up the integrity of what we do would help.”
Ultimately, the situation with Maine is a microcosm of mid-major basketball writ large: a small school in a small town trying against great odds to innovate, adapt and will its way to success. Throughout the nation, many coaches are developing their own methods of dealing with the hurdles in front of them, whether they’re imposed by geography, history or state legislatures.
Speaking with Richard Barron provided an excellent insight into how just one coach is planning to deal with the challenges of front of him to create a competitive team. After listening to him explain the thought and strategy that goes into every choice he makes about the team — no matter the scale of the decision — one thing is abundantly certain:
He knows his team. He’s confident in his team. He has clear goals for his team.
And his team demands your attention.