"We leave our team goals to the players; it allows them to take ownership of the program and feel like they are truly a part of something," the Retriever mentor said. "They have decided they want to protect our home court, become a better defensive team and ultimately, win our league. I feel this group will work extremely hard to attain those goals."
Monroe expects the 2010-11 Retrievers to be vastly different from a squad which struggled to a 4-26 mark last year. It came as a shock to followers of the program, which had won an America East title in the 2007-08 season and reached the title game the next year. A season-ending injury to returning post starter Justin Fry got things off on the wrong foot and inconsistency and inexperience plagued the team throughout the 30-game schedule.
"With all the new pieces last year, it was difficult to figure out who was going to perform on a consistent basis," Monroe said. "Sometimes the guys' body language told me they were a little overwhelmed. But the players did not quit, they played hard, and hopefully, the experience gained will pay dividends this season."
UMBC truly has a unique roster make-up in Coach Monroe's seventh season at the helm and 17th overall with the program. The aforementioned Fry earned a medical hardship waiver and will compete as a graduate student this year. He will be joined by two other players; guard Travis King and forward Laurence Jolicoeur who played for three seasons at George Washington and Manhattan respectively and are both enrolled graduate students at UMBC.
"They have all experienced the rigors of college basketball and those experiences are things they can share with the younger players. They know what the coaches want and know how hard you have to work at this," Monroe said.
"The three of them playing this year tells you a lot about what they're all about. They are all very competitive and are all cherishing the opportunity to play college basketball. For different reasons, Justin, Travis and Laurence all feel they have something to prove."
One area that UMBC must improve upon is rebounding. The Retrievers were next to last in the nation in 2009-10 with a rebound margin of -9.6. That statistics was particularly annoying to Coach Monroe, who earned his collegiate nickname, "The Bear," by outworking bigger players around the glass.
"We have spent a lot of time in the off-season on getting stronger, having better technique and being in proper position to rebound the basketball. But, mostly, rebounding is an attitude. I am very confident that we will improve in this area."
UMBC is in good hands at the point guard position, as the Retrievers are very talented and deep at the quarterback slot. Despite some spotty offensive play by the team, junior Chris De La Rosa emerged as America East's top distributor last season. In his first year with the Retrievers, the Siena transfer averaged a league-best 5.1 assists per game and was second in the conference with a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Although he is a 'pass-first' point guard, De La Rosa was a very capable scorer in 2009-10. He was second on the team in scoring, averaging 11.7 points per game and scored 20 or more points on five occasions. He led the team in free throws attempted and hit those at a 77 percent clip, displaying great tenacity in getting to the basket. The five-foot-ten, 160-pound Washington Heights, N.Y. native could also be a tenacious defender, especially when matched against scoring threats.
"Chris is a true point guard. Feisty, unselfish and got he better as a communicator as the year progressed," Monroe said. "I feel he is one of the better guards in our league and will be even better this season."
King can run the point as well, but will most likely see the bulk of his time at either wing position. The strapping 6-foot-2, 215-pound Connecticut native posted solid numbers across the board for George Washington, including 78 assists, 25 three-point field goals and 47 steals as a freshman and 6.2 points and 2.7 rebounds per game after his knee surgery as a junior in 2008-09.
King, De La Rosa and Fry are UMBC's tri-captains this season.
"Travis is a natural leader and our players gravitate towards him," Monroe said. "He works extremely hard and has raised everyone's level of play. He can handle the ball, possesses a scorer's mentality in transition and in the half-court and is a very good defender."
Sophomore Nick Groce saw a lot of action in his freshman campaign, averaging 16.2 minutes per contest. He committed only 22 turnovers in 29 games played and displayed a good shooting stroke from the field and charity stripe. But defense is Groce's forte and the trio of De La Rosa, King and Groce should be able to extend opponent guards without giving up drives to the basket.
Senior Bakari Smith appeared in 17 games last season and continues to work very hard on all aspects of his game. The wing guard fits well into UMBC's backcourt mentality of exhibiting gritty defense.
Sophomore Brian Neller and red-shirt freshman Jamar Wertz are also candidates for significant playing time at the off-guard/small forward positions. Neller averaged 4.3 points per game as a freshman and was second on the squad with 38 3-point field goals. He scored in double figures four times, and the Retrievers won both times when he amassed double figures in conference play.
"Brian can really shoot the basketball from distance," Monroe said. "We call it Nellyville. He has gotten a lot stronger and is developing an edge on the court."
Wertz underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in November last year. He was able to return to practice on a limited basis after the calendar turned to 2010, but will make his debut on the court this fall. Wertz, who scored over 1,700 points as a prep player in Virginia, has a scorer's mentality and is a threat from the perimeter, moving to the basket, and getting on the offensive glass as well.
Fry leads a quintet of Retrievers that Coach Monroe refers to as 'hybrid' players with good size that have offensive abilities both facing the goal and playing a classic post position. All five of these players should fit very well into UMBC's more open offensive sets in 2010-11.
Fry was playing his best basketball just before his first knee injury in early February of 2009. The 6-foot-10 Pennsylvania native had just posted back-to-back double-doubles before suffering the injury and managed to come back four games later with strong quarter and semi-final games in the America East Tournament. He averaged career bests in scoring (8.1, 9.3 ppg in final nine contests) and rebounding (4.7) and had added noticeable mass to his frame over the past year.
"Justin's experience and leadership is very valuable to this team," Monroe emphasized. "I can't tell you how proud I am of this young man. He is just a tremendous leader. Last year, just sitting out watching what the team had to go through, he had a chance to see the game from a different perspective. I think that it motivated him and it also gave him a chance to see the other side of the game of basketball. As a result, I think it's going to make him a well-rounded player."
Jolicoeur may remind Retriever fans of Cavell Johnson with his ability to run the court and a feathery touch out to and beyond the arc. He started 39 career games at Manhattan and averaged 4.6 points per contest in 68 games played. His rebounding and blocked shots increased gradually each season and the coaching staff has been pleasantly surprised by his ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the glass.
UMBC's lone conference honoree from last season is sophomore forward Adrian Satchell. The 6-foot-5, 205-pound Connecticut native became the second Retriever in seven years to earn a slot on the America East All-Rookie Team. He averaged 6.2 points per game and was the leading freshman rebounder in America East with 5.1 caroms per outing. Satchell shot 51.2 percent from the floor while starting all 30 games for the Retrievers.
Despite his best efforts, he was physically unable to match up defensively with opposing power forwards last year, but is noticeably bigger this fall. "Adrian is a player that quietly gets the job done," Monroe said. "He has worked very hard to get himself physically ready for this season. He has improved his 15-18 foot-range shot and his moves around the basket."
The coaching staff is very excited about freshmen Matt Conway and Chase Plummer. Coach Monroe feels that the six-foot-seven Conway is, "one of the better natural athletes on the team." The Florida native prepped at St. Thomas More in Connecticut last season, a program which advanced to the National Prep Championship.
Plummer competed at New Jersey's national power St. Patrick last fall and came on strong after a knee injury curtailed his playing time in the first half of the campaign. He was somewhat overshadowed by his higher-profile teammates, but Coach Monroe feels UMBC has found a true gem in Plummer.
"Chase can be as good as he wants to be," Monroe said. "He is one of our stronger players at this early stage of his career. He has a good mid-range game, is an excellent passer and we expect him to be a solid rebounder."
Junior Jake Wasco will be spending the great bulk of his playing time around the rim. Wasco started the 12 consecutive America East games before an ankle injury in mid-February curtailed his season. The six-foot-eight, 235-pound Philadelphia native averaged 2.7 rebounds per contest and is being counted on for rebounding, defense and scoring around the basket this season.
UMBC opens its 25th season of NCAA Division I basketball on Sunday, Nov. 14 as they host high-scoring VMI. For the second straight year, the Retrievers will face the other Baltimore-based Division I programs, although three of those four battles will be on the road.
"We should be playing all of the local schools. It is exciting for the players, the coaches, the administrators, and should be for all local college basketball fans as well," Monroe said.
The schedule is also highlighted by a pair of games at Big East Conference heavyweights U. Conn (Dec. 3) and Notre Dame (Dec. 22). UMBC will face the Huskies and Fightin' Irish for the first time ever in men's basketball.
Boston University is the preseason favorite in the America East race this season, but Coach Monroe sees a well-balanced league in 2010-11.
"It should be an exciting season. Every team has gone through some personnel changes and will be trying to find their way," Monroe said. "I feel that every conference game is going to be very competitive and it's going to be one of those years that it will be difficult from any team to break away from the pack."
The Final Take
Coach Monroe sees no hangover effect on the squad from a difficult 2009-10 campaign. In fact, he has observed a very determined approach from the holdovers in spring workouts and summer training to the entire complement of a dozen players that will make up this year's squad.
"I really like this team's mentality," he said. "There is more of a togetherness with this group and they all get along really well. They are hungry to getting started. I am excited about his team. They have a level of enthusiasm, energy and passion for the game that has been very apparent from the outset of the year. This group has bought in to what we'd like UMBC Basketball to be about."