Saturday, November 7, 2009

Nine Teams, Nine Days: UMBC

Last season: 15-17 (7-9 America East), lost to America East championship game to Binghamton.

Head coach: Randy Monroe, five seasons, 72-82 record (37-43 AE).

Departing players: Rodney Adkins, Brett Burrier, Rich Flemming, Jay Greene, Frank McKnight, Darryl Proctor, Marcos Tamares.

Incoming players: Chris De La Rosa, Shawn Grant, Nick Groce, Robbie Jackson, Brian Neller, Adrian Satchell, Jamar Wertz.

Expected starting lineup (position, name, year, 2008-09 stats):
G Chris De La Rosa, sophomore, 2.5 PPG, 1.5 APG, 0.6 SPG (Siena 2007-08)
G Jamar Wertz, freshman, no previous college experience
G/F Matt Spadafora, senior, 8.2 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.5 APG
F Adrian Satchell, freshman, no previous college experience
C Robbie Jackson, junior, 2.4 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.2 BPG (Marshall 2007-08)

Player to watch: Chauncey Gilliam. Gilliam impressed as a freshman last year, drawing strong consideration for the America East All-Rookie team due to his efficient scoring output -- nearly 11 points per game with a 55.4 eFG% -- and obvious potential. With Darryl Proctor and Jay Greene no longer on the team, UMBC's competitive hopes for this season were placed squarely on Gilliam's shoulders before the sophomore forward was declared academically ineligible for the fall semester. Assuming everything goes according to plan, Gilliam will be back in time for conference play, but his teammates will have spent the better part of two months competing without him on the court. The longer it takes Gilliam and his teammates to establish a comfort level upon his return, the less success the Retrievers will have in conference play.

Biggest strength: Depth. It sounds strange to tout the depth of a team that lost its two star players and whose two most returning contributors, Gilliam and Justin Fry, will be unavailable for the first half of the season -- Fry is recovering from knee surgery -- but this is a strength in a relative sense. The past two Retriever teams have sported an extremely short rotation, rarely distributing playing time among more than six or seven players. With Gilliam and Fry out for a couple of months, there is no way to gradually ease the freshmen into supporting roles -- they will gain experience, and gain it quickly. There will be growing pains, but the freshmen who play well will have the opportunity to gain head coach Randy Monroe's trust and continue to play rotation minutes even after Gilliam and Fry return.

Biggest weakness: Pressure defense. Inexperience is the obvious weakness, but UMBC still returns three of its five starters from last year (Gilliam, Fry, and Spadafora) and has a couple of transfers with Division-I backgrounds. Pressure defense encompasses both preventing shot opportunities by forcing turnovers and contesting attempted shots. The Retrievers were poor in both categories last year. It's nearly impossible to play adequate defense when opponents are taking lots of high-percentage shots; with UMBC's only quality defensive rebounder from last year now playing overseas, the Retrievers need to do a better job of harassing the opposing offense or else risk fighting an uphill battle game after game.

Offseason: Last year's UMBC team was a sequel nobody wanted to watch, with remnants of the previous year's championship squad struggling to hold on to the things that made it great. Jay Greene and Darryl Proctor were a two-man wrecking crew, but other than Chauncey Gilliam the Retrievers' pair of stars didn't have much help. When either player was off his game, the results reflected UMBC's lack of depth, and the team's overreliance on Jay Greene was made most evident when the diminutive point guard was unavailable for a trip to Vermont. The Catamounts romped to a 76-42 victory in what would be one of the most lopsided results in America East for 2008-09.

For better or for worse, UMBC is in search of a new identity. Chauncey Gilliam is the most likely candidate to emerge as a star, but for the next two months a host of unfamiliar faces will work to establish themselves and get the Retriever program pointed in the right direction. Regardless of how the upcoming season unfolds, rest assured that this year's UMBC team will be significantly different than previous iterations.

Guards: Chauncey Gilliam enters the season as the best player on UMBC's roster more or less by default. Gilliam is likely to see a large increase in his workload this season -- his 19.4 %Shots (percentage of shots taken) was dwarfed by Proctor's 31.0 -- but has proven himself to be an efficient scorer who can accumulate points in a variety of ways. The 6-foot-5 wing has range extending beyond the arc, but often opts to use his size and strength to force his way to the basket. Proctor's departure will require Gilliam to shoulder more of the rebounding load, and opponents increased focus on Gilliam will force him to create opportunities for others, but there's no reason not to expect continued progression in the sophomore's game.

Gilliam's size allows him to play either two-guard or small forward; the Retrievers' other interchangeable part at those positions is Matt Spadafora. Spadafora, like Gilliam, measures 6-foot-5, but the 195-pound senior is leaner in build and less capable of imposing his will on defenders. Spadafora's inability to reliably create his own shot was evident last year, as a moderate increase in usage -- his %Shots jumped from 13.7 in 2007-08 to 16.2 in 2008-09 -- and increased defensive focus on the then-junior led to a substantial drop in shooting efficiency. Spadafora's eFG% as a sophomore was an impressive 52.8; as a junior, it was an anemic 39.8. While Spadafora is adequate in most areas, the Retrievers need a major infusion of offense in order to replace Proctor and Greene's production; barring an unforseen improvement in efficiency, Spadafora is not equipped to provide 12-15 points per game, so the offense will have to come from somewhere else.

Replacing Jay Greene at point guard will be two of the Retrievers' several new faces -- one a transfer, the other a freshman. Chris De La Rosa played sparingly as a freshman for Siena in 2007-08, averaging a bucket and change in just under 10 minutes per game, with a career-high 10 points at home versus Canisius. De La Rosa displayed court vision and creativity while a Saint, posting a assist-to-turnover ratio (A/TO) of 1.7 and averaging more than six assists per 40 minutes. The sophomore guard stands just 5-foot-10 and will have trouble contesting shots against taller players but has good lateral quickness and a nose for the ball on defense. De La Rosa also uses his agility on offense to get past his defender or create space to get off a mid-range jumper. While the Retrievers will miss Greene's range and on-court leadership at times, De La Rosa should be a capable point guard from day one.

Competing with De La Rosa for playing time is Nick Groce. Groce, a freshman, is not an athlete of De La Rosa's caliber but was noted for his intelligent play while in high school and has effective range extending to the 3-point line. The 5-foot-11 freshman has enough length to partially compensate for his lack of height, but UMBC will still have trouble matching up against teams with two taller guards. Even more so than De La Rosa, Groce is a "pass-first" point guard, but both will need to shoot fairly consistently while Gilliam is ineligible. De La Rosa's previous collegiate experience should give him the starting nod, but expect Groce to get substantial minutes throughout the season.

Gilliam's absence, coupled with UMBC's lack of a true combo guard, leaves the offense lacking in perimeter shooting. Of the potential replacements for Gilliam, Jamar Wertz is the best fit. While the freshman's 6-foot-4 frame has yet to fill out, Wertz displayed plenty of athleticism and scoring ability in high school, hitting the 3 in transition and draining baskets from a variety of locations on the floor. Wertz is not a polished defender and, like many of the more athletic wings in America East, will most likely take sme time to get acclimated with defensive schemes on the Division-I level. Still, with two playmaking point guards on the roster and a lack of perimeter shooting expected from Spadafora and De La Rosa, Wertz should be a natural fit as Gilliam's replacement for the first half of the season.

Challenging Wertz for a starting role will be two other freshman guards, Shawn Grant and Brian Neller. Grant was a late addition to UMBC's recruiting class -- he didn't commit until this past August. The 6-foot-4 swingman improved as a perimeter shooter over the course of his senior year but is more adept from mid-range. Grant is also a capable rebounder for a player of his height; with Proctor gone, the Retrievers will need rebounding help from every position on the floor.

Neller arrives as perhaps the best 3-point shooter on the entire UMBC roster. His shooting ability alone will be enough to earn him playing time, as shooters of Neller's caliber frequently end up at schools above America East's level. However, Neller is in all likelihood the least athletic of UMBC's incoming guards, and with Spadafora also an adequate athlete at best, the Retrievers will be at a defensive disadvantage with Neller on the floor. Pure shooters are a valuable commodity, but Neller will have to round out his game if he hopes to start.

Bakari Smith returns as a reserve guard. Smith played sparingly in 2008-09, totaling 12 points and a handful of rebounds and assists in 112 minutes. In both games where Smith saw significant playing time -- 22 minutes in a start at Vermont and 24 minutes at home versus New Hampshire -- he was invisible on the court. Smith may see reserve minutes at either guard position, but considering his inability to earn regular playing time when UMBC was lacking in depth last season, the odds of seeing Smith on the court for substantial stretches are rather low.

Forwards: UMBC has plenty of guards on the roster, but unless Spadafora or Gilliam are categorized as forwards, the Retriever frontcourt is rather thin. The most notable forward on the roster is undoubtedly Justin Fry. Fry has yet to emerge as an offensive presence in his three years at UMBC, posting an Offensive Rating (ORtg) of 91.9 as a junior while tallying just over eight points per game. Nor is Fry a particularly good rebounder or shot blocker: considering he stands 6-foot-9, a DR% of 12.9 and Blk% of 2.8 constitutes the low end of expectations. Fry is a good post defender, and his return will allow the other Retriever forwards to play more aggressively due to added depth, but unlike Gilliam, Fry is not an impact player. Especially in light of his knee issues, don't expect Fry to take over games.

Adrian Satchell arrives in Baltimore via Windsor High School, the original home of former Retriever player and current Retriever coach John Zito. Given UMBC's lack of frontcourt depth to open the season, Satchell will likely start off at power forward, where he will be somewhat undersized at 6-foot-5. Satchell can get to the rim or score from distance and is reputed to be a strong offensive rebounder. Without several players available to spell him, expect Satchell to be allowed to play through his mistakes. By the time Fry is able to return, Monroe should have a good idea of Satchell's effectiveness.

Jake Wasco was pressed into duty as one of the Retrievers' few available reserves last season. While it would be a stretch to say Wasco impressed during his freshman season, he at least managed not to look completely overwhelmed. Wasco fouls far too much (7.3 FC/40) to get significant playing time and was a non-factor on offense (%Shots of 8.9), but these things are to be expected considering Wasco's relative inexperience -- he didn't start in high school until his senior year. Still, the sophomore forward needs to progress enough to provide some value off the bench; otherwise most of his minutes will dry up when Fry returns.

Center: Robbie Jackson arrived via Marshall and immediately qualified as one of the largest players in America East. There's some debate over his size: UMBC's initial press release listed Jackson as 6-foot-11, 260 pounds, but the current roster gives Jackson an additional inch and 30 pounds. Either way, Jackson will be a true center in America East, a rare commodity. Jackson's offensive game revolves around getting to the line -- he shot nearly as many free throws as field goals when at Marshall -- and getting second chance buckets via offensive rebounds. In limited playing time, Jackson was an excellent rebounder at both ends of the floor. Jackson's primary weakness was foul trouble -- his FC/40 was 7.5 in 2007-08 and will have to drop significantly in order to stay on the floor. If Jackson can play under control and log minutes, he has the potential to be a real asset for the Retrievers.

Outlook: Of the nine teams in America East, the Retrievers are by far the hardest to project. As Stony Brook demonstrated last winter, relying heavily on freshmen doesn't exclude a team from being competitive in this conference. The Seawolves, however, played unexpectedly strong defense from the outset, limited their mistakes, and had an unusually productive freshman class. While it's fair to expect some of the Retrievers' newcomers to make significant contributions early on, Stony Brook's success last season was surprising for a reason. It's rare to see a large group of freshmen find success so quickly. There's enough returning talent, provided Gilliam and Fry are available for conference play, for UMBC to avoid the cellar, but expecting the Retrievers' several additions to close the gap between UMBC and the top half of the conference is expecting too much. Expect these big dogs to finish sixth once again. Anything higher is unlikely.

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