UMBC: A Sleeping Giant Stirs
By Paul McMullen
“I’ve been waiting for this,” Randy Monroe said, “for a year.”
The UMBC basketball coach was discussing the red-shirt season that three potent transfers had to take last winter, but that anticipation was a trifle compared to the decades veteran Retriever observers have spent, wondering if the program will ever experience March Madness.
An eclectic combination of a post-grad gunner, a tough little point guard, two maturing sophomores, a transfer from Coppin State and two more from James Madison have combined for three wins over Atlantic 10 teams and a 7-2 start, situating UMBC for a run at its first trip to the NCAA Division I tournament.
Head coach Randy Monroe
What would that accomplishment signify?
Forty years and one month ago, UMBC prepared for its inaugural game. It had its moments in Division II, but since moving to Division I in 1986, it has yet to experience such a fast start or reach a conference title game, as the high-tech campus in Catonsville lacks the history and coaching hooks of its Baltimore rivals.
Coppin State has hit the skids, but Fang Mitchell will always have 1997, when his Eagles came within a basket of becoming the only No. 15 seed ever to reach the Sweet 16. Its NCAA berths in 1990 and ’91 a fading memory, Towson centers its marketing on coach Pat Kennedy, who took Florida State to the Elite Eight in 1993.
That year’s Sweet 16 included a California team coached by Todd Bozeman, who has Morgan State flexing its muscles for one of the first times since the Bears won the NCAA Division II title in 1974. West on Cold Spring Lane, Jimmy Patsos has Loyola College chasing its first NCAA bid since 1994.
Monroe is working some of the same mojo at UMBC, minus the name recognition. In a town that has had characters from Mitchell to Jim Valvano -- look it up, his first head coaching job was at Johns Hopkins -- Monroe is the kind who removes his blazer in the first half, but otherwise is about as flashy as the quart of apple cider he keeps on his desk.
“To be honest,” said Monroe, who is in his fourth season at his first head coaching job and 14th overall at UMBC, “I didn’t think I’d be here this long.”
SPEEDY'S GENTLE PUSH
A 45-year-old native of Philadelphia, Monroe comes by his understated manner honestly, having been mentored by Speedy Morris, one of the most unpretentious guys ever to hold a clipboard. His college career at Cheyney State came between two stints under Morris, as a power forward for Roman Catholic High, then as an assistant at La Salle when the Explorers had national Player of the Year Lionel Simmons.
“Randy brings his lunch pail to anything he gets involved in,” said Morris, who is back coaching in Philadelphia at St. Joseph’s Prep. “Randy was loyal to a fault. Vanderbilt was going to double his La Salle salary, and he felt bad about going there. I had to push him out the door.”
After one season in Nashville, Monroe got to UMBC for the 1994-95 season, Earl Hawkins’ last with the Retrievers. He was then retained by Tom Sullivan, who was hired by athletic director Charlie Brown despite Phil Jackson and Dean Smith pitching their own protégés. When the Sullivan era came to an ugly end in 2004, conventional wisdom called for another proverbial national search, but Brown took a gamble on Monroe.
“We could have brought in a big name, but that usually leads to a house-cleaning,” Brown said. “We were at a point where we needed to worry about the current student-athletes.”
On the last Thursday in November, after UMBC overcame foul trouble to hold off Morgan State in a big non-conference game, Monroe was asked what he had told his players.
“You’ve got to be like your coach. You’ve got to be mentally tough and fight through that stuff,” he said.
Monroe has seen UMBC move from the Big South to the Northeast to the America East, where it’s aligned with several flagship universities. The ice hockey teams in New England are bigger draws, but Monroe’s coaching baptism coincided with a milestone season for Vermont, and he went 10-24 in his first two conference seasons.
STAYING WITH A PAL
When one local critic knocked UMBC last year for not winning any Baltimore recruits, Monroe had already taken an alternative route to land a prime catch from the city.
Darryl Proctor, the Retrievers' second leading rebounder and third leading scorer, is a junior forward who spent two seasons at Coppin State and plays much bigger than his 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds.
As fearless as he is versatile, Proctor’s college debut came at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena. As a freshman, he also played at Texas, West Virginia, Utah and Marquette, and was named Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year. As a sophomore, he did battle at Xavier, UCLA, Oklahoma, Illinois and Michigan State.
“There’s not much that intimidates me,” Proctor said.
When he decided to leave Coppin State in spring 2006, weren’t there greener pastures for a player of his caliber?
“I just didn’t want to go far from home,” Proctor said. “You factor in Brian Hodges and Levi Franklin, and UMBC looked real attractive.”
Hodges is the Retrievers’ leading scorer and the first player in the program’s history to get a degree in less than four years. Before they were prep rivals in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, they were teammates on the Metro Players AAU team coached by Franklin.
One of UMBC’s toughest perimeter defenders ever, Franklin was also Proctor’s prep coach. He’s an assistant at Robert Morris, but his heart remains in Maryland; next May he’ll marry Proctor’s mother Paulette.
While Proctor played for an MEAC contender, the other two transfers found little Colonial Athletic Association success at James Madison. Ray Barbosa and Cavell Johnson put up decent numbers in three seasons there, but won just eight CAA games.
“In the year they sat out, we had long, in-depth conversations about what it takes to be successful,” Monroe said. “They’ve been receptive. Fact is, they’ve been playing out of their minds.”
A 6-foot-8 forward who launched 53 three-pointers as a James Madison freshman, Johnson can still run the floor, but he has developed an interior game and could lead the America East in rebounding and blocked shots.
“Ray and Cavell play every game like it’s their last,” Proctor said. “They play their hearts out, because they want to go out and do something in their last go-round.”
Ineligible to play last season, Proctor, Johnson and the 6-foot-2 Barbosa practiced and pounded players who reached the middle of the road in the America East, but now there appears to be great chemistry among a mix of four Pennsylvanians and three from Prince George’s County.
The first seven games included five different leading scorers. Against Morgan State, Barbosa kicked out to Matt Spadafora for an open 3-pointer, and was more pleased than if he had made the shot himself. Bozeman, whose Bears had opened the season with a four-point loss at Connecticut, said the Retrievers were the best team he had seen to that point.
“I don’t know if we have a team in our conference with four scorers like that,” Bozeman said.
In order, Hodges, Barbosa, Proctor and Johnson all average more than 14 points a game. The Retrievers lead the America East in field goal, 3-point and free throw percentages, and Jay Greene knows where all those shooters want the ball.
HELP FROM THE YOUNG
A 5-foot-8 junior, Greene led the America East in assists last season and could be among the national leaders this year. He can keep a defense honest, having gone for a career-high 21 points at American. He directs veterans who can run and win a half-court game.
“Last year, we won games in the 40s and 50s,” Hodges said. “This year, we’re trying to play in the 70s. It’s tough for other teams to guard us.”
A thin rotation also gets production from two sophomores, Spadafora and Matt Fry. The weight room work they did in the offseason is evident, both more athletic and confident than they were a year ago.
Fry turns 20 this week, but he’s surrounded by guys who have been around the block. Barbosa was 23 when the season began. Proctor has been in most major airports east of the Rockies, and Hodges has begun work on his master’s in economic policy analysis.
The Retrievers won at La Salle and Richmond, and they rebounded from an overtime loss at Lafayette to beat George Washington, UMBC’s first non-conference win over a team coming off an NCAA invite since 1991.
A couple dozen students rushed the floor and mugged for MASN after the Morgan State win. That ritual is supposed to be reserved for major upsets, but give UMBC a pass. It came into this season with an all-time record of 428-621 and a propensity for posting rare achievements when no one was paying attention.
Jeff Bzdelik, who went on to coach the Denver Nuggets and is now at Colorado, recruited fine talent to take UMBC into Division I, but did so without benefit of a conference. In December 1989, Coppin State became the last non-conference visitor to beat Maryland at Cole Field House, returned home -- and promptly lost to the Retrievers. UMBC won four straight Battle of Baltimore titles at a time when the other locals were struggling.
Last May, when the lacrosse team was one win from its Final Four and an audience of 50,000 at M&T Bank Stadium, UMBC president Freeman Hrabowski explained how vital it is for a Baltimore school to carry a high profile in lacrosse. That may be imperative for an institution’s regional identify, but there is nothing like men’s basketball to get ESPN and USA Today to sit up, take notice and elevate your profile.
“We’ve made the NCAAs or been ranked in most other sports, but we’ve been frustrated in basketball,” Brown said. “There’s nothing like the allure of basketball, because nationally, March Madness captures the imagination of everyone.”
UMBC, imagine away.
STATE OF BLISS
Through games of Dec. 10, UMBC had the state's highest Rating Percentage Index. The RPI, which measures strength of schedule and gives more weight to road wins, is one of the statistical tools used by the NCAA to select at-large teams and seed the entire 65-team field.
79. Morgan State
197. Mount St. Mary's
204. Coppin State
Issue 2.50: December 13, 2007