UMBC Men's Basketball Outlook
The coaching staff, the uniforms, and many of the players representing UMBC Basketball in 2000-2001 are the same as the 1999-2000 version.
But those may be the only similar elements.
Playing fifteen home games in a refurbished RAC Arena, this year's "Running Retrievers" will play a completely different style of basketball than Tom Sullivan's first five UMBC teams. Although UMBC possesses several game-toughened veterans of Northeast Conference wars, a host of promising newcomers are expected to inject a great deal of energy to the team.
"We're going to up the tempo of the game," said Sullivan, whose New Hampshire College teams were very successful at this style of basketball. "We're going to be allowed to do this because we have players who have a good understanding of the game and the depth that can wear teams down by playing at a pace that many teams cannot match."
That is a dramatic departure from the Retrievers (11-18, 7-11) of a year ago. The loss of three juniors depleted the roster to ten players, which included four freshmen. UMBC was forced to play a lot of zone defense and deliberate offense and the team became a target for many NEC teams hoping to exact revenge after the Retrievers' rampage through the league the previous season (17-3 NEC) . UMBC hung around many games, but ended up just 2-9 in games decided by seven points or less.
"The most important lesson we learned last year was how important experience is," recalled Coach Sullivan. "Losing those three players caused us to fall off in scoring. We had to rush freshmen in, who did a good job, but it became an issue where we couldn't score effectively."
But Coach Sullivan and his staff have restocked the shelves this year, as they welcome back one of those three players, junior swingman Rich Giddens, and welcome in six freshmen, several of whom will contribute right away for UMBC. "We can go eleven or twelve deep and have some specialty kids that will provide answers in given situations. We have more talent and expect better results."
The increased depth should produce better results for UMBC's backcourt. Last season, the Retrievers played the campaign with three guards on the roster, but that deficiency has turned into strength this season. The new-look backcourt should really help senior guard TERENCE WARD. Ward, a two-time First Team Northeast Conference selection, was UMBC's first, second, and sometimes third option last season. He scored at a 15.9 ppg clip, becoming the eleventh Retriever to surpass the 1,000 point plateau, but his efficiency slipped because of his extended minutes on the floor.
"We'd like to get Terence down to 25-30 minutes a game," said Coach Sullivan. "When he's fresh, he's one of the top scorers in this league."
The other half of UMBC's "dynamic duo" in the backcourt last year was sophomore JUSTIN WILSON. Wilson, a member of the NEC's All Rookie Team, set a UMBC freshman assists record (120) and provided more scoring than projected (9.1 ppg) , but like Ward, his efficiency fell off in the second half of the season. Wilson played all 40 minutes in four games last season and all of his shooting percentages dropped significantly in the final half of the season.
But with Ward occasionally spelling him at the point and freshman ISAAC BROOKS entering the equation, Wilson should improve upon last year's debut. Coach Sullivan is extremely high on the 5'10 Brooks. "He brings a different type of dimension to us. He gives us great quickness, is tenacious, and is an excellent defender."
The situation at the wing positions appears just as solid. "A lot of points are scored by wing players at this level," said Coach Sullivan. "They can break down the defense, bang home jump shots, and even get some stick-backs. We wanted to bulk up at this position and think we have done so."
In addition to Ward, the aforementioned Giddens, and freshmen RON YATES and PETER MULLIGAN will all play significant roles at the two and three slots. Giddens, a junior, left school for a year for personal reasons, but has returned bigger and stronger this fall. The former Big South All Rookie Team member led UMBC in scoring in 1997-98, but struggled with his shot the following season. He is a tenacious competitor, whose attitude may push him quickly through any rust he gathered during his year off.
The 6'5" Yates did everything at Forest Hills HS last year, averaging a "triple-double" and earning All City (NY) honors in the tough New York PSAL. "There aren't many kids his size with his quickness," said Sullivan. "His ability to assert that will be a factor of how hard he works in getting better. Ron can be a very dominant player at this level."
Mulligan's resume is gaudier than any student-athlete to enter UMBC. He exploded last year to lead St. Raymond's to the title of the New York CSHAA and a national ranking. Mulligan's well-rounded game and all-out hustle earned him the state's Player of the Year honors and several prestigious post-season All-Star appearances. He predominantly scored inside last season, but has a much-improved his perimeter game.
"Peter is the ultimate team player," said Coach Sullivan. "He realizes what his teammates can do and adapts his game accordingly. He hustles and makes things happen on both ends of the floor."
Sophomore KAREEM WASHINGTON and freshman SAM BRAND are also looking to make an impact in the backcourt. Washington (3.4 ppg) was the third guard on last year's team, and he is an excellent athlete, who continues to refine all facets of his game. Brand is a walk-on to the team, whose perimeter shooting could earn him some early minutes in his career.
The insertion of Giddens, Yates, and Mulligan into the UMBC rotation will push senior BRAD MARTIN to his more natural position of power forward. Martin, recently tabbed by Coach Sullivan as the team captain, is coming off an up-and-down season. He started the league season brilliantly, highlighted by back-to-back efforts of 21 and 23 points vs. Mt. St. Mary's and Sacred Heart. But as UMBC played and faced more zone defense, Martin's effectiveness diminished, although he ended up leading the league in field goal percentage.
"Going to a faster game will benefit Brad," said Coach Sullivan. "He has come a long way as a team player in understanding what he has to do for his team to win. He is a tenacious kid who battles continuously."
If there is one player who can match Martin's strength, it is fellow senior KENNEDY OKAFOR. The Northeast Conference's leading rebounder (9.3 rpg, xth in nation) last season recorded 13 "double-doubles" last season, ranking amongst the nation's leaders in that category. At his current pace, he would become the school's all-time leading rebounder and he will quickly become the 12th Retriever to score 1,000 points. His rebounding will key UMBC's new running game.
Sophomores ANDRE WILLIAMS and SAM GRANNUM are UMBC's version of "Thunder and Lightning" at the post positions. Coach Sullivan feels both players are coming along quickly, and could be very effective players faster than the coaching staff projected. Williams (2.5 ppg) possesses the strength of an Okafor, and just needs more playing time to settle into his comfort zone. He keyed UMBC's road win over Robert Morris with a spectacular 17-point performance. Grannum (1.7 ppg) is a lean leaper, who has a deceptively smooth offensive game. He could be defensive specialist on the backline for UMBC.
Freshmen post players WILL Mc CLURKIN and EUGENE YOUNG both enter UMBC with outstanding promise. The 6'9", 220-pound McClurkin, Suffolk (NY) County's Player of the Year, possesses the diverse offensive game of a more experienced player, but must work on his strength and defense to become a complete player. "We hope Will can develop into a dominant big man," said Coach Sullivan. "We don't want to rush him, and he will make some mistakes. But we have no fear that with his skills, he can play and help us right away."
The 6'7" Young is a late bloomer, who didn't make the varsity squad until his junior year, then led the state of Delaware in blocked shots as a senior. He will give UMBC a big body to defend in given situations, and let his offense develop over time.
The only predictable element of the NEC is its unpredictability. UMBC was picked seventh in 1998-99, and finished first, then tumbled to seventh after a loftier outlook last year. "The league is more balanced and there are better players in the league this year than in past seasons," said Coach Sullivan.
"We are considered a very good program in this league and it is our goal to make sure we don't think we're a good program, but go out and play like one. I can't tell you how many times last year, other teams were so happy that they beat UMBC. I think we've arrived at a certain stature. The key is how tough mentally and how driven we are to prove that we belong at the top of this league."
With the change in style of play and several of the newcomers playing key roles for the 2000-2001 team, how quickly the staff and players adapt to the style and each other will be an important factor in how far the Retrievers go this season. "Our realistic goal is to win this league," said Sullivan. "We can beat any team in this league and it's up to us to go out and prove it.
"In a sense, we have four seniors. They should lead us, harness the talent of the kids around them and take us in the direction we need to go. It's a question of talent, unity, focus, and the fact that the guys are a bit annoyed at how we were upset several times last year. If we can answer those questions, then we can accomplish our goal."