The University of Maine men's basketball team is pictured during a recent game against the University of New Hampshire at Memorial Gym in Orono. Both Black Bear basketball teams are being challenged by the back-to-back schedule of weekend games implemented by America East this season because of COVID-19 concerns. Credit: Tyler Neville / Courtesy of UMaine athletics

After an uncertain start to the season during the COVID-19 pandemic, Division I college basketball teams now are experiencing a more consistent rhythm to their schedules.

That rhythm is different in America East, where instead of playing each opponent twice approximately a month apart, as has been the recent tradition, the 2020-21 conference schedule consists of back-to-back weekend games against each opponent in order to reduce travel and potential exposure to the coronavirus.

“It’s working out. It is what it is. It’s the same for both teams,” said UMaine men’s basketball coach Richard Barron, whose Black Bears (2-5 overall, 2-4 America East) visit Vermont for games Saturday and Sunday. “From a travel standpoint it’s fine. It’s the easiest way to get the games in and it gives you a little bit of a routine.”

Barron has previous experience with back-to-back weekend games from when he coached the Princeton women’s team from 2001-2007, though those consecutive games were against different opponents.

“This year it’s the same team for both games so it’s a whole lot easier than it was in the Ivy League,” he said. “It’s no big deal.”

The UMaine women’s basketball team is 8-1 overall and 5-1 in America East heading into a weekend series at UAlbany.

To date, coach Amy Vachon’s team has swept series at Hartford and at home against New Jersey Institute of Technology around a split at New Hampshire in conference play.

“We’re still getting used to it,” Vachon said. “Being on the road is a little different. You’re in a hotel. At home, we’d be watching film and at the gym after.”

Vachon said sorting out playing time is dependent on different factors.

“We see each week how things change with our players and how they are feeling,” Vachon said. “If we have to modify some things, it’s still a work in progress. Every week we get a little more comfortable with it.”

Vermont, the preseason pick to win the America East men’s title, split its first three series against UMass Lowell, NJIT and UAlbany before recording its first sweep at Binghamton last weekend.

“It’s a work in progress trying to figure out how to keep your team focused and energized for two straight games. I think we’re all trying to figure it out as we go,” said Vermont coach John Becker, who has guided the Catamounts to a 5-3 start.

Becker said being able to focus on a single opponent each week and allowing players to have the entire week to improve or recover from injuries are benefits, but game days have a different pace.

“The weekend feels like a 36- or 48-hour sprint,” Becker said. “You play the first game, then you get a couple of hours to recover. We want to get the players off their feet and into their rooms, but for the coaching staff it’s right to the film and making adjustments.

“The games are usually early, so it’s an early shootaround the next morning and an early film session with the team via Zoom, which is challenging. Then you play that second game, so you’re pretty tired when you get home from the weekend.”

There’s also the task of trying to defeat an opponent twice in short order, particularly when the foes are conference rivals with great familiarity.

Blanca Millan, the leading scorer and rebounder for the UMaine women, said the ability for both teams to make adjustments between games presents its own challenges.

“It is definitely hard,” she said. “We scout [the opponent] so the first game is easier. But then everyone adjusts to the things that hurt their team, so [the second game] is definitely harder.”

The UMaine men have split their last two series, earning a first-game win at home against New Hampshire on Jan. 2 and a second-game victory at NJIT last Sunday.

“Each game is its own game,” Barron said. “I don’t know that it’s any easier than it would be if it’s two days later or three days later. There’s so many other factors going on that you can’t really make too many conclusions.”

Those factors also include the different ways road teams travel to games, whether by bus or plane, and in some cases arriving at the game site the morning of the opener.

“It’s hard to get the sweep,” Becker said. “I think it levels the playing field if there’s a talent disparity between the two teams. I think playing back-to-back may help the lesser-talented team on that weekend, and then there’s the day-of travel situation. All of that makes it challenging.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...