Will Brown called Saturday’s Albany practice “the worst of the season” and said he was extremely concerned how his team would react against UMBC Sunday afternoon.
Sam Rowley added, “I think that’s the source of our success is our bench. It goes beyond just the games. At practice, as Coach was saying, those guys took it to us starters at practice, and there’s no excuses for the starting five feeling sorry for themselves, and if you rest or take it easy, they’re going to beat you. Having them making us better every day in practice has been huge for us.”
Somewhere on the way to the UMBC bus, Aki Thomas’ ears must have been ringing as Rowley said that.
The Retrievers dressed only eight players for Sunday’s 69-55 loss at SEFCU Arena, really seven, as walk-on Josh Olabosipo did not appear in the game and has played just one minute all season. The UMBC bench had room for all kinds of student managers, trainers, and anyone else who made the trip up from Baltimore.
It’s comical, but practices for Thomas certainly are not these days, trying to go shorter and getting whomever he can to fill in and make things competitive when he wants to run plays or scrimmage.
“We’ve gotten used it at this point, we’ve adjusted,” Thomas said. “It is what it is at this point. We’ve made the proper adjustments in terms of practice, and now we just have to continue to go on with the team we have.”
There is plenty of sympathy to go around for Thomas and the Retrievers (3-17, 1-6), but it’s also worth asking: How the heck did they get into this predicament?
Well, you have to start a week before the 2012-13 season when the school and then-head coach Randy Monroe parted ways. Monroe spent 19 years with the program, eight as head coach (including a 2008 America East title) and the timing was more than a little strange and counterproductive. Thomas first took over on an interim basis, and UMBC predictably went 8-23 (although that was more wins that Monroe had in his last three seasons).
So two seasons later, Thomas (who was officially named head coach after the 2012-13 season) is still trying to stabilize and build the UMBC program.
Still he started the season with a full roster. Then, in the preseason, freshman forward Lavell Washington was slowed by a knee injury and then had season-ending surgery rather than risk further damage. Unfortunately, things like that happen to just about every team. But then in the opener against Akron, reigning America East Rookie of the Year Rodney Elliott hurt his shoulder and he needed season-ending surgery, obviously a crippling blow to any chance the Retrievers had to contend (they were picked seventh in America East preseason).
But they moved on, and got their first win of the season (after nine losses) by beating Longwood on Dec. 14. However, after that game, Aaron Morgan – who had started every game in Elliott’s absence until the Longwood win (playing only four minutes) – was suspended from the team. Charles Taylor, who was averaging 15.4 minutes off the bench and started nine games last season, also has not been seen in a UMBC uniform since.
Malik Garner made it a trio of Retrievers to leave after the Longwood game. Garner had started 19 games last season (averaging 6.0 points in 22 minutes, including a 32-point effort against Eastern), but was seeing limited minutes this season. He missed games against Iowa and Central Connecticut with a lower body injury, was a healthy DNP-CD (did not play-coach’s decision) in the Longwood win, and also hasn’t been seen since with the team. Thomas said Sunday none of the three will return this season.
So UMBC was down to eight, and two weeks later – in a loss to Lehigh – sophomore Will Darley went down with a knee injury and hasn’t played since, although Thomas said he hopes to have him back in the next couple of weeks.
Whew, writing all that made me tired.
The magnificent seven (not counting Olabosipo): Wayne Sparrow (graduate transfer from Richmond), Jourdan Grant, Malcolm Brent, Devarick Houston, Cody Joyce, Ben Grace, and Jakob Stenhede.
Grace, a walk-on who didn’t score last season until the final seconds of the last game against Albany, didn’t play much when the team was at full strength, but the 5’10” (listed) sophomore has amazingly logged 20, 12, 20, and 18 minutes in UMBC’s last four games.
Stenhede is a project from Sweden, who also didn’t see many minutes before the mass exodus, which means (with all due credit to Grace and Stenhede) that the starting five are pretty much the only players Thomas envisioned being on the floor for his team this season.
And things could be worse, believe it or not. Houston was in foul trouble for much of the second half Sunday. Sparrow went down with what looked like an ugly knee injury, but was able to return a couple of minutes later with the help of a knee brace. Cody Joyce (who led UMBC with 16 points) finished the game on the bench with his knee wrapped in ice.
What would happen if they lost a couple more players? Then had another foul out or something? You’re caught between being empathetic and being embarrassed for them.
Of course, despite some gruesome offensive numbers (338th in efficiency, 342nd in turnover rate at 24.8%, and 329th in offensive rebounding at 25.2%), UMBC didn’t need any sympathy as it blasted Maine (who turned around and won at Hartford Sunday), 76-59, last Thursday for its first conference win behind 28 points from Joyce and 18 from Grant. And the soft underbelly of America East will give them a few more chances at wins this season, the Retrievers have already taken UMass Lowell to overtime, lost by two to Hartford, and three to New Hampshire. UMBC hosts Binghamton on Wednesday, the first of two meetings with the Bearcats.
Much like Binghamton, the rebuilding process for next season has already started in earnest. While Sparrow will be gone, Elliott, Washington, and Darley should return along with next year’s incoming freshman class. That means that not only will UMBC be vastly improved, but the student managers will have to go back to standing behind the bench like everyone else’s.
QUICK ALBANY NOTES
Will Brown said Albany (12-7, 7-0) is a bit mentally fatigued, even though they’ve now won 10 of 11, which can be a little concerning, heading into Wednesday’s showdown at Vermont, which will obviously be without Peter Hooley.
“I think we’re a little bit tired, more tired than a normal team I’ve coached would be after seven conference games,” Brown said. “The mental fatigue that’s been involved in the last two weeks in particular with Peter (Hooley) and his family have been tough. Everywhere I go, Peter Hooley, Peter Hooley. It’s awesome.”
Freshman Wheeler Baker led the Great Danes in scoring with 14 points, one off his career-high, after scoring scoreless in his previous two games. He may be a name to watch for in the future.
“Wheeler, as these guys can attest, has more good days than bad days in practice, especially on the defensive end,” Brown said. “He wakes up in the morning shooting the basketball, his favorite color is orange, he sees the rim and tries to put ball in rim, that’s just Wheeler. The hard thing is he makes some unbelievable shots in practice, but they’re not good shots. So when he misses, I find myself pulling my hair out, which I can’t afford to do right now. He’s hard to coach and I mean that in a good way.”