Third-year UMBC head men’s basketball coach Aki Thomas sees one goal for the 2015-16 season as paramount to all other aims:
“To stay healthy,” he said.
Thomas’ chief aspiration comes as no surprise, as last season two of his projected starters, sophomore guards Rodney Elliott and Will Darley, missed significant playing time due to injuries. In the Retrievers’ first game of the season at Akron, Elliott tore the labrum in his left shoulder and required season-ending surgery.
Elliott was named AE Rookie of the Year in 2014 for his dominant first season, leading all conference freshmen with an average of 15 points per game. He also shattered the Retrievers’ single-season freshman scoring record with 451 points. In addition to leading his team in offensive production and minutes (31.4 per game), Elliott was also integral to UMBC’s ball movement, dishing out a high score of 3.6 assists per game.
Darley, meanwhile missed 11 games in 2014-15 due to a knee injury. He averaged 9.7 points and 3.4 rebounds per contest in just 19 games.
With the limited presence of Darley and complete absence of Elliott, the Retrievers won just two of 16 conference matchups last season, finishing in eighth place of the nine-team conference. UMBC was blown out, 66-39, by Vermont in the first round of the conference tournament.
Fortunately for UMBC, both Darley and Elliott are healthy and expected to contribute significantly to this season. Elliott received a medical hardship waiver due to his injury and will retain three more years of eligibility.
“[Elliot] is fully recovered from his shoulder injury,” Thomas said. “He looks good, he’s healthy and he’s been out there practicing.”
Looking to spearhead the Retrievers’ offense this season along with Elliott and Darley will be senior forward Cody Joyce, who had a breakout performance last year. He started 28 out of 30 games and averaged 13.4 points per game on the season.
“[Joyce] had a really good year,” Thomas said. “We were really able to get him the ball in certain areas where he could be effective.”
Joyce, the lone senior on this year’s squad, will be looked upon to lead a UMBC team that consists of just three upperclassmen. Despite the youth of his team, Thomas is excited to have a deeper bench than he did last season. Last January, in the heart of conference play, the Retrievers’ roster featured just seven players. Now, that number is up to 14, seven of whom are newcomers to the program.
“I think everybody needs to grow up a little faster than anticipated,” Thomas said. “We’ve got the itch, we want to win, we want to play well. We do have some young guys that are talented … I think most of them have been pretty productive in practice, showing us some different things.”
The influx of first-year players will have to replace the production of last year’s key contributors: forward Devarick Houston and guard Wayne Sparrow. Houston, an imposing 6-foot-7-inch defender, was third in the America East and first amongst his teammates last season in blocks, averaging 1.2 per game.
“[Houston] was a tremendous defender,” Thomas said. “I thought that he was very underrated as a defender in our league. It will be interesting to see if somebody emerges for us to be that kind of player that he was defensively.”
Sparrow, meanwhile, was a graduate transfer from Richmond before failing to matriculate into a particular graduate program at UMBC. He was declared academically ineligible at the end of January and missed the rest of the season. Prior to that, he had led the Retrievers in scoring, averaging 13.8 points per game.
However, Thomas focused on the development of this season’s team rather than the productivity of last year’s graduates.
“So far, with this team, I like what I see,” Thomas said. “The expectations for this year right now are just to take one day at a time, one game at a time, one possession at a time and try to get better every day.”
The improvement Thomas hopes to see will not come easily, as last season UMBC finished no better than sixth in the America East in any offensive category. Improvement will depend in large part on the resurgence of Elliott and the ability of UMBC’s newcomers to acclimate to the speed of college basketball.