2002-03 Men's Basketball Outlook
The UMBC men's basketball program has won 38 games over the past two seasons. In four years of NEC play, UMBC is 52-26 and has been a step away from the league title game in three of those four years. But, the marquee players from those seasons are gone, leaving a few battle-tested veterans and many more bright-eyed underclassmen to carry on the new-found Retriever pride. Head Coach Tom Sullivan is supremely confident that they will.
"What we have now is a group of youngsters who would challenge the first group for dominance last year," said Coach Sullivan. "The group that is here now has a very clear mission and a very clear motive, to prove that they are 'players', and it was as much their team last year as anybody's."
Last year was a dream season with a nightmarish ending. UMBC defended its Battle of Baltimore title, finished tied with Wagner for second place in the Northeast Conference, and won its Division I school-record 20th game in the NEC quarter-finals over Robert Morris. The Retrievers built a double-digit lead in the NEC semis, but collapsed under a Quinnipiac surge in the second half and did not reach their goal of a league title.
Three starters and a key reserve that combined to average 34 points per game have departed, but the maturation and attitude of the less-heralded returners and the infusion of some exciting newcomers give the Retriever mentor a bright outlook entering the 2002-03 campaign.
"I feel very comfortable," said Coach Sullivan. "I think the cohesion factor this year is better than on last year's team. Last year, several players felt for them to be successful, they had to play many minutes. I don't think this year's group feels that way. I think they are thinking more in terms of team success. When we analyzed last year's success, we saw certain individuals who weren't given as much credit as they probably deserved."
Two of those players that fall into that category are senior guard Justin Wilson and junior guard Kareem Washington. Wilson started for two years at the point and was doing a creditable job as a floor leader, but was inconsistent from the floor. But Coach Sullivan brought him off the bench in 26 of 29 games last season, and the Brooklyn, New York native flourished on both ends of the court. The six-footer averaged 9.0 ppg in just 22.5 minutes played per game, and finished fifth in the NEC in shooting percentage at 57.2%. He was judicious from behind the arc, hitting 24 of 44 shots (54.5%) and his steals per game went up by 50% as well.
Washington won the team's Most Valuable Player Award and could have been the NEC's Most Improved Player. After a red-shirt year of injuries and frustration, Washington started the season strongly and never let up. Always a solid defender, the 6'3" White Plains, New York native worked feverishly on his perimeter game, and when the dust settled, he averaged 10.0 ppg, and was second in the NEC at 43.6% from behind the arc and 13th from the floor at 49.5%.
"I can think of several games last year where Justin and Kareem were the difference between winning and losing," said Coach Sullivan. "They both understand their roles in the offense and how to execute it."
Fitting nicely into the guard rotation will be 6'1" sophomore Rob Gogerty. The most unheralded Retriever entering last season, all the Cedar Grove, New Jersey native did was to start all 29 games and earn All Rookie Team honors from the NEC. Gogerty, who averaged 5.3 ppg, also was one to execute an offense, as he committed a paltry 26 turnovers in 716 minutes of action at the lead guard slot as a freshman. Coach Sullivan is looking for more of the same this season, along with some additional scoring punch.
At the wing positions, behind Washington, and occasionally Wilson, are sophomore Mike Snyder and all four members of a flexible freshman class. The 6'2", 200-pound Snyder (0.5 ppg) could not find minutes at the off guard slot last year, hence, he tried to convert to the point. But Coach Sullivan has the physical guard back at his natural position this season and if he can defend and bang home the open shot, he will find a place in a deep rotation this season.
Freshmen Bobby Fisk and Jerrell Dinkins offer different looks at the wing positions. At 6'2", Fisk is a pure shooter from behind the arc whose progress will come from picking up the strength and saavy needed at the Division I level. Dinkins has guard skills, but has picked up about two inches to 6'5 1/2" over the past year, and is effective around the basket as well.
Another pair of freshmen, P.J. Hatcher, and John Zito, give the Retrievers a different look than do Fisk and Dinkins. Hatcher is the most versatile of the group. At 6'3", 225 lbs., the native of Texas has a surprising long range game, yet is the "bull" that many associate with gridiron heroes of his native state. He could wind up anywhere from the off-guard offensively to the power forward spot on defense for the Retrievers. At 6'6", 210 lbs., Zito has the ideal basketball build, and may have the greatest impact in the early going for UMBC. A year of prep school at St. Thomas More (CT) helped Zito develop a well-rounded game, including outstanding finishing skills around the goal.
UMBC's post players will not make any pre-season All Northeast Conference squads, but give Coach Sullivan his most natural group of post players during his eight-year tenure in Baltimore. At 6'5", 240 pounds, senior Andre Williams (3.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg) is immovable when posted on the block, but has spent most of his first three seasons behind other players in Coach Sullivan's rotation But he has produced on many occasions, including huge roles in last year's RPI-improving wins over Detroit and Monmouth. He is a high percentage shooter (51% fg, 70% ft), who needs to play in a relaxed mode to give UMBC his maximum production level.
Junior Eugene Young and sophomore Andrew Feeley combined to start 28 games last season. The 6'7" Young (3.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg) played well down the stretch, as his offensive skills began to catch up with his shot-blocking and overall defensive abilities. He shot a solid 58.5% from the floor, buoyed by some rim-rattling dunks and jaw-dropping low post moves.
Young's biggest adjustment will be playing 20 or more minutes in a game, as opposed to the 12.6 he averaged last season. The 6'9", 250-pound Feeley (3.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg) had the UMBC crowd on its feet with an early "double-double" explosion in the first home game of the season, but the rigors of his first season slowed his productivity in February. He appears to be leaner and more aggressive heading into his sophomore year and Coach Sullivan feels that Feeley, Williams, and Young will turn a few heads this season.
"We now have three players that we know can score with their backs to the basket and will drop the defense and open up the outside shooters," he said. "This year's team is a better outside shooting team than last year's, so I am not expecting a major drop-off in scoring."
Coach Sullivan also feels this year's squad will surpass the defensive efforts of last year's 20-victory team. "I actually think we will be a better defensive team this year. The players are as tuned into defense as they are into offense. This group reminds me of the '99 team with a good defensive presence and an offensive burden that will be shared. I think this group understands that."
UMBC will have to understand that because it has a tough non-league schedule, which includes national champion Maryland, Big East powerVillanova and a pair of tournaments against some formidable competition. Inaddition, the NEC appears to be stronger this season, with the upper half ofthe league returning much of its strength, and the lower half rising up to meet that challenge.
"The league is stronger," said Coach Sullivan. "Our challenge is what we are about. Are we going to pride ourselves in our defense and executing our offense? If we come up with positive answers to those questions, than we will have achieved what we wanted to do."
The Retriever mentor is very aware of the perceptions of his team outside of Hilltop Circle. He appears more anxious than at any time in his eight years at UMBC to roll out the ball rack and see what his team can accomplish.
"The youngsters here feel they were major contributors. They are trying to prove that they are good. They have a great opportunity that doesn't always come along. Now they have the stage to show everyone. Now we'll see how they write the script.
"Our goal is to win a championship. The gauntlet has been thrown down by others who feel we can't."