Blanca Millan left no confusion as to how she felt about Wednesday’s news. The senior guard on the University of Maine women’s basketball team had it all over her Twitter account.

First, Millan retweeted the NCAA’s official report that the 2020-21 Division I college basketball season will begin Nov. 25. Soon after, Millan retweeted the positive reaction to that news of her head coach, Amy Vachon, and assistant coach Tom Biskup. Millan tweeted her personal reaction, too, a simple “LET’S GO” followed by two red police light emojis, four exclamation points, and three star-struck smiley faces.

Yeah, Millan is excited.

“We’ve been waiting for this for months,” Millan, the 2019 America East Player of the Year, said. “Everybody has to keep following the rules. Wear a mask everywhere on campus, the temperature checks. All those little things are going to make the difference if we have a season or not.”

Even with the NCAA’s announcement that Division I basketball teams can begin playing games on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, a lot of questions need to be answered before the University of Maine men’s and women’s basketball teams can play an upcoming season. Concerns about coronavirus testing, travel, and allowing crowds at games need to be addressed

“I would say it’s aspirational,” Richard Barron, men’s basketball coach, said of the Nov. 25 starting date.

The 2019-20 college basketball season ended abruptly in March, as most Division I conferences were in the midst of conference playoffs to determine automatic bids to the NCAA tournaments. The UMaine men’s team saw the season end with an America East quarterfinal loss at top-seed Vermont. The women’s team left Orono on March 11 to play at Stony Brook in the America East Conference championship game, only to see the game cancelled. Days later, the NCAA cancelled the Division I men’s and women’s tournaments.

Maine men’s basketball coach Richard Barron talks to his team before a game last year against Maine Maritime at the Portland Expo. Ariana van den Akker/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“Now there’s something tangible we can focus on,” women’s basketball coach Amy Vachon said, adding a lot needs to happen between now and Nov. 25 to make the goal of playing games a reality.

A senior forward on the men’s team Nedeljko Prijovic was named a team captain Friday by Barron. The Black Bears leading returning scorer, Prijovis said he’s been looking forward to this season for some time, and is eager to help the team continue its improvement.

“This is my last year. I want to go out and do something special this year with this group of guys,” Prijovic said.

A big obstacle to games can be seen each time the Black Bears hold a practice. Under current guidelines, no more than 10 people are allowed in the gym at the same time for a practice session. That means both Vachon and Barron have had to split their teams into workout groups. Each of Vachon’s groups typically work out together in the Pit, the on-campus gymnasium, a few times each week. Everybody in the gym wears a mask, and practices at a safe social distance. Vachon and her team consider themselves fortunate. Their limited workouts are more than some teams in other parts of the country are allowed.

“It’s different and weird. It’s not easy,” Millan said, “but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Prijovic described the practices, divided by position groups, as “going slowly,” but he understands why and expects his team to be ready when they’re finally able to practice together as a full team.

“We’re not doing anything with contact. We have six players at a time,” Barron said. “But it’s a whole lot better than nothing. We need to earn the respect to get more responsibility… We all have a societal responsibility with this. We’ve got to learn how to work with state governments.”

State government officials would need to give the Black Bears approval before the teams could begin participating in full squad practices. The Maine Principals’ Association and state agencies are beginning to study the possibility of a high school winter season, and that decision could impact all college basketball in the state, not just the state’s lone Division I program.

Affordable and fast coronavirus testing is a key step towards a season, Vachon said, along with answering questions surrounding travel and quarantine restrictions.

“Testing is the big thing,” Vachon said.

Added Barron: “Everybody wants to see this work. I don’t think anybody is working against us. There’s some very serious issues Governor Mills is facing. Our practice isn’t at the top of that list, and I understand why.”

The NCAA’s ultimate goal with the upcoming season is to not have to cancel the tournaments for a second consecutive season, Barron said. That means playing a conference slate of games is paramount.

“If that’s the number one goal, we work backwards from that. Hopefully there’s some room for non-conference games,” Barron said.

A lack of or limited non-conference games would mean at-large bids to the tournament would have to be determined more on the eye test than head-to-head competition. A scenario with no or fewer non-conference games also would rob mid-major programs like Maine of guaranteed money games against large conference opponents. Last season, the Maine men played non-conference guaranteed money games against defending national champion Virginia, as well as Connecticut, Hawaii, and Washington.

While almost always a loss on the court, those games are pivotal to Maine’s athletic department budget. University of Maine Athletic Director Ken Ralph mentioned a men’s basketball game at Colorado could be in jeopardy.

“Revenue shortfalls are going to affect anything we do. The guarantee games in football and men’s basketball are important,” Ralph said. “If the Pac-12 plays in league only, we’re not playing at Colorado.”

The women’s team is still scheduled to play in the Hall of Fame Women’s Challenge at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Nov. 28-29, along wit Connecticut, Mississippi State, and Quinnipiac.

“Hopefully, we can still play in that,” Vachon said.

Maine’’s Sergio El Darwich shoots over Maine Maritime’’s DeMerrill Levy during a game last year at the Portland Expo. Ariana van den Akker/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Ralph, who serves on America East’s basketball planning committee, said the conference is looking at multiple scheduling options. The addition of the New Jersey Institute of Technology to the conference in June means the traditional double round robin schedule would expand from 16 to 18 league games.

“We have a pile of different schedules we’re studying. We’d love to play an 18-game round robin, but we also have to be realistic,” Ralph said.

America East could consider scheduling pods or regional games to fill out the conference schedule, Ralph said. Scheduling will be dependent on the various state quarantine and testing rules. America East has 10 member schools in its basketball leagues, spread across eight states. Five of those states: New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, are on the Maine’s list of travelers exempted from testing or quarantine for visiting the state. That would leave teams from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County as the two schools that would need to provide negative tests or quarantine before playing at the University of Maine.

Where Maine basketball would play games this season is also a question. Maine’s primary home arena in recent seasons has been the Cross Insurance Center in nearby Bangor. If crowds are not allowed at games for part or all of the season, Memorial Gym, aka The Pit, could be an on-campus site for games. The Pit is used by both teams as a practice facility, and has hosted limited games in recent years, most notably women’s basketball conference semifinals games when there was a scheduling conflict with the Cross Insurance Center.

“It would be dependent on if we could have fans yet,” Ralph said in regards to a home venue for the Black Bears.

“We’ll play wherever can can, to be honest. I have no preference,” Vachon said.

Millan knows the feeling she gets when she runs on to the court in front of a loud home crowd. That’s part of the reason she came back to Maine for a fifth season after tearing her ACL early last season.

“I’ve thought about it,” Millan said when asked about playing in an empty gym. “Which is very sad, because we have the best fans. But I’d rather play with nobody there than not play.”

Prijovic said the University of Maine campus is pretty quiet these days, with students primarily shuffling to classes and that’s it. He sees that as a good sign. Smaller groups mean lower chances of an outbreak on campus, and that can only increase the chances of having a full season.

“If we want to have a good season, we need to focus on basketball,” Prijovic said.

With officials on campus, in the conference, and at the NCAA working towards that goal, the Black Bears can only continue their small workouts, and wait.

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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