Head Men's Basketball Coach Tom Sullivan has been down this road before.
After spending his first three seasons at UMBC in the Big South Conference, the Retrievers moved to the NEC for the 1998-99 season, and Coach Sullivan had to shift gears in all aspects of his program. That transition was an instant success, as UMBC set an NEC record by winning its first fifteen league games and capturing the conference's regular season title.
In April of this year, the Retriever mentor, now entering his ninth year in Baltimore, learned that the Retrievers would become the tenth member of the America East Conference, and would begin play in the 2003-04 season. Although he is confident that his program will rebound from a subpar season, Coach Sullivan is also realistic in terms of the transition this time around.
"It (the conference change) came on a little suddenly…the fact that is happened as soon as it did could put a little stress on the younger players," said Sullivan. "Also, this conference is stronger than the NEC. That being said, the program is a lot deeper this year, we have players who have experience, so I am anxious to see how we'll do."
The 2002-03 season started routinely enough for UMBC, as they won their third consecutive Battle of Baltimore Tournament and followed up with a league-opening win over Mt. St. Mary's. That victory put UMBC's four-plus year conference record at 53-36. But injuries to key performers Eugene Young and John Zito and a brutal non-conference schedule led to seven straight losses as the Retrievers re-started NEC play.
The next two games set the tone for the conference season, as UMBC had leads in the final minute vs. Robert Morris and St. Francis (PA), but dropped both contests. Despite losing a 20-point lead in an overtime loss at LIU, the Retrievers won three of the next five games, but as they prepared for a favorable schedule down the stretch, both point guards, senior Justin Wilson, and sophomore Rob Gogerty were bitten by the injury bug. Wilson tore his ACL and did not return, while Gogerty did not play in three crucial games as the Retrievers (7-20 overall, 5-13 NEC) failed to qualify for the eight-team league tournament for the only time in their five seasons in the conference.
"You hope you don't have to throw young players into the fire immediately and count on them to consistently to win," said Sullivan. "We had that happen last year with transfers and injuries. I thought we played well in many of our close losses, but we were just outmanned."
Coach Sullivan is optimistic that the experience his younger players received a year ago, and the infusion of several quality newcomers will return the program to its consistency which produced a mark of 82-61 from 1997-2002. He will also return to a formula which has marked his 18, 19, and 20-win teams of the last five years-going at least 10-11 deep on his roster on a nightly basis.
"That is when we were at our best, especially with a relatively young team, when we played a lot of people each game," said Sullivan. "It keeps the players fresh, and allows you to get people on the floor at the end of the game who can defend and execute."
The Retriever staff's primary objective entering the 2003-04 season was strengthening its frontcourt. That objective just happened to coincide with the move to the America East, whose rosters are stocked with quality post players. "This conference has done a great job in bringing in good big men over the last several years," said Sullivan. "They look for four's and five's with size, whereas the NEC seemed to focus more on transitional-type players. The front lines in this league have bigger people that can really play."
UMBC will feature its biggest team overall in its 17-year Division I history. Eight players are 6'5" or taller and nearly all of those players have the necessary bulk to match-up with their new rivals. Senior Eugene Young and junior Andrew Feeley have the most experience of the group. Both are ideally suited for the center slot with complimentary games. Young (3.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg) battled his way through 27 games last year, despite sprains to each ankle, and a painful right shoulder injury which hampered his range of motion. Fully recovered, the 6'7" Wilmington, Delaware native is a staunch defender, who excels both on the ball, and from the weak side as a shot blocker and rebounder. He will also run the floor, bang the offensive glass and hopes to rediscover his post-up game which was limited last season.
Feeley (10.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg) is the better offensive player of the pair. He made dramatic strides from his freshman year, hitting 55.0% of his shots from the field and a solid 72% from the line last year. Feeley can be effective on the block, but also has a solid shooting stroke inside the 18-foot mark. He also improved on the defensive side last season, finishing 4th in the conference in rebounding, but Coach Sullivan will still push the 6'9", 250-lb. Scotch Plains, New Jersey product for more consistency and production this season.
Junior college transfer Serge Feckoua and freshman Mike Housman also provide pieces to the puzzle at the four and five spots. The 6'7" solidly-built Feckoua transferred from Broward (FL) Community College last winter and even his ability to practice with the team in the spring semester had a profound influence on the squad. "Serge brings experience, but also a dynamic element which I think we lacked last year," said Coach Sullivan. "His ability to go after the ball on both ends and play with so much energy was infectous."
The 6'6", 240-pound Housman could be the sleeper of the newcomers. Although he won't be mistaken for the best natural athlete on the squad, his basketball acumen and skill set belies his youthful appearance. He averaged a "double-double" against some very strong prep competition in his final two high school seasons, and Coach Sullivan is excited about his potential over the next four seasons.
Sophomores John Zito, Seth Davis, and Cory McJimson will vie for a substantial amount of minutes at the small and power forward positions. Zito, a powerfully-built 6'6", 220-pound athlete, had a down-and-up season as a freshman for UMBC. He suffered a broken foot in the Battle of Baltimore title game, missed eight games and shook off the rust until early February. Zito (9.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg) closed the season with a flourish, averaging 16.0 ppg and 8.0 rpg over the final eight games. He overpowered opponents on the interior, and was really unable to display his driving and true perimeter skills because of the injury.
Sophomores Davis and McJimson, both California natives, came to UMBC from Pierce College in Washington. The 6'7", 215-pound Davis battled the injury bug last year, but did average 10.6 ppg and 9.6 rpg in 14 games for the Raiders. He is a quick leaper, who can get the ball off the glass and score quickly from the post. McJimson, also at 6'7", but a bit wider than Davis, averaged 17.6 ppg and 7.3 rpg in his lone junior college season. He looks to take the ball to the basket first, and pull up second, but is expected to create mismatches at the small forward spot with his strength or at power forward with his speed.
Another player who could contribute at a wing position is sophomore Jerell Dinkins. The 6'5" Bronx, New York native played more than 15 minutes just once in the season's first eighteen games, but was pressed into heavy duty action down the stretch. He posted a pair of double figures efforts and ended the campaign with an eleven-rebound effort vs. Quinnipiac. Dinkins (3.1 ppg, 1.5 rpg) has added bulk to his lively frame and if he provides much-needed perimeter shooting and good defense at the small forward or the big guard position, UMBC will be a much improved squad.
Senior guard Kareem Washington (15.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg) carried a huge part of the offensive load in the 2002-03 season. UMBC was 0-9 when the 2002 Battle of Baltimore Most Valuable Player scored eleven points or less in a game. He led the squad in nearly every offensive category and managed nearly five caroms a game from the off guard slot. Washington attempted nearly 27% of UMBC's shots from the floor, and his efficiency should climb back up if the inside players deliver as advertised.
"We hope Kareem can step up and be a critical player that we'll look to in scoring situations," said Coach Sullivan. "Other teams will focus on him, and he has to be able to handle that pressure. We're expecting him to have a great senior year."
Backcourt mate, 6'1" junior Rob Gogerty (5.7 ppg, 2.9 apg) should reprise his role as the starting lead guard, but could also see some action at the off guard position. Gogerty, a former All League Rookie selection, continued his steady play at the point and tenacious defense, but struggled at times with his jumper. Like Washington, he should benefit from a more aggressive inside-out approach to offense that UMBC try to re-establish this season. Gogerty's heir apparent at the lead guard slot is 6'2" freshman guard Chris Pugh. Pugh led his Oxon Hill HS squad to a Maryland 4A state championship last season, often subjugating his own scoring abilities to effectively distribute the ball. Coach Sullivan feels that the Clinton, Maryland native is the quickest guard he has had in the program, and he definitely see plenty of action in his initial collegiate campaign. Rounding out the UMBC backcourt is red-shirt freshman Bobby Fisk. The 6'2" Fisk saw action in a pair of early season games last season, before a stress fracture ended his campaign. The Ravena, New York native is the team's best perimeter shooter, but must prove he can defend and shake off the rust from a year away from competition in order to crack the rotation. A tough non-league slate should prepare the young Retrievers for their first America East season. UMBC will attempt to capture its Battle of Baltimore title for the fourth straight year, and has challenging home games vs. Princeton and Delaware in early December. Moreover, UMBC will travel to Miami (FL), the Bay Area (San Francisco, Santa Clara) and Ohio State, before opening league play at Albany on January 2. "Our goal is to win the conference title," said Coach Sullivan. "Whether we're prepared to do that, at this moment, is what the learning curve of entering this league is all about. I believe that the teams at the top of this conference are very good. Their personnel is extremely talented and they have a lot of them. What we have to do is see whether we can match the depth and the quality of personnel."