Far before the final buzzer sounded in UMBC and Albany’s America East quarterfinals matchup, the Retrievers knew their season was over. In a blowout of a game, throughout which the Retrievers did not lead once, the Great Danes thrashed UMBC, 86-56, expelling them from postseason play.
Second-year head coach Aki Thomas is looking to avoid a similar finish this season, but he will have to make due without last year’s two key senior leaders: in forward Chase Plummer and guard Quentin Jones. Plummer led the Retrievers in rebounds, averaging five per game. He also scored an average 10.5 points through 19 minutes per contest his senior season. Jones was the team’s marksman, shooting nearly 44 percent from 3-point range and 73 percent from the free-throw line, despite only averaging 7.3 points per game. Plummer and Jones both served as team captains in 2013-14, providing senior leadership to the squad.
“You can only replace experience with experience,” Thomas said. “Seniors are very hard to replace, especially those with such talent.”
Integral to UMBC’s game plan this season is the 2014 America East Rookie of the Year Rodney Elliott. The now-sophomore guard broke the Retrievers’ single-season freshman scoring record with 451 points last season. Elliott averaged 15.0 points in 31.4 minutes per contest in 2013-14 — the most of any freshman in the conference. While leading his team in offensive production as well as minutes on the court, he also dominated ball movement, doling out a team-best 3.6 assists per game.
Thomas will also rely on sophomore William Darley, who the coach described as a potent shot and outside threat, to make a bigger impact this season. The 6-foot-8 guard suffered a foot injury early last season, limiting him to an average of just 14.2 minutes per game. As a result, Darley averaged just 2.8 points per contest on the season. But he turned heads at the end, posting eight points, seven rebounds and four assists in the Retrievers’ loss to Albany in the AE quarterfinals. Through his development last season, he was named the squad’s Most Improved Player.
To make up for lost leadership, the Retrievers will turn to senior forward Devarick Houston, the defense’s anchor. Last year, Houston finished fifth in the America East with 1.5 steals per game and one blocked shot, good for seventh in the conference.
Rounding out UMBC’s experienced upperclassmen is junior forward Malik Garner. Garner started 29 games, averaging six points and 2.7 boards in 21.7 minutes per contest. He also showed flashes of brilliance last season, scoring 32 points and grabbing 11 rebounds against Eastern University early in the year.
To complement the experience of his team, Thomas’ team will feature new blood in freshmen guards Jourdan Grant and Malcolm Brent. Grant averaged 18.5 points, 5.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game in his senior year of high school while Brent led his high school to two consecutive postseason berths.
With his depth, Thomas is focusing on improving some particular offensive areas that yielded unimpressive numbers. The Retrievers posted a conference-worst 65.5 percent clip from the line last season while connecting on just 40.1 percent of their shots from the field.
“We need to improve our field-goal and free-throw percentages,” Thomas said. “Our free-throw percentage got better last year, but wasn’t where it could have been.”
But with a blend of returners and newcomers with scoring potential stepping on the floor for the Retrievers this season, UMBC hopes to end 2014-15 on a high note.