For UMBC coach Randy Monroe, the Retrievers’ nightmarish 2009-10 season is a thing of the past.
Two years after UMBC earned its first NCAA tournament berth in the program’s history, the Retrievers labored through a 4-26 season. Since then, four players have left Catonsville and Monroe has added three recruits in their place.
Matt Conway, a 6-foot-7, 200-pound forward from Sarasota, Fla., Chase Plummer, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound forward from Elizabeth, N.J., and Travis King, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound guard from New Haven, Conn., who will use his final year of eligibility at UMBC after earning three letters at George Washington, make up the Retrievers’ 2010 recruiting class.
Monroe spoke with Recruiting Report recently about the Retrievers’ new additions.
What are your overall thoughts on this three-man class?
I’m excited about the guys we have coming in: Matt Conway, Travis King and Chase Plummer. Conway played at St. Thomas More (in Connecticut) and is a very good 3-point shooter. His understanding of the game is very good. He goes to the glass, plays hard and he’s a good defender. It doesn’t matter what the defensive assignment is. You put him on him, and he’s very, very capable of guarding the other team’s best player and he does a good overall job.
Matt Spadafora has graduated, and you had to deal with a few premature departures in Chauncey Gilliam, Shawn Grant and Robbie Jackson. Gilliam has said he’s going to Akron and Grant is headed to a junior college in California, but what were the reasons behind Jackson’s exit?
Jackson’s issues were just academic issues that he wasn’t doing his part. As a result, we hold our guys accountable. They have to do their part academically and athletically.
Were you able to address those losses in this class?
No, because I believe in the group of guys we have coming back, and I think the guys we have coming in are going to be very good players. I think they understand what it takes to be successful. They work hard, they’ve come from good programs, and I think they understand the sacrifices you have to make in order to not only be a good player, but to have a good team. I’m not saying that they’re not going to go through their share of ups and downs, because that’s part of the college experience as well. That’s part of being a basketball player – knowing where your niche is and how you’re going to improve, and that’s a big part of it. These guys will be going through those learning experiences, with the exception of Travis King. But for both Matt and Chase, this is all new to them. If they continue to work and maintain their work ethic, they’ll be able to have some very good experiences at the collegiate level.
But just getting back to the point about losing Jackson and losing Gilliam and also Shawn Grant, obviously you don’t like to lose players, but things happen. If you look across the board this year, there were well over 300 players who transferred. So it’s just a part of what happens, unfortunately. Guys move on. But we certainly wish them well in their departures, and at the same time, that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a good program here and have a good basketball team here at UMBC.
How did you discover Conway and what does he bring to the table?
We saw Matt at St. Thomas More in Connecticut, where he went to prep school. It’s a very good prep school and the coach there, Jere Quinn, does an outstanding job. What Matt brings to the table for us is his ability to score both inside and outside. He has nice offensive moves around the basket and is a good outside shooter. He rebounds and he also brings a defensive presence to the floor as well. He’s kind of a tough matchup because he can go inside and he can go outside.
Plummer didn’t put up big numbers, but he was playing on a team with Kyrie Irving and Mike Gilchrist. Do you expect him to play a similar complimentary role? What are your expectations of him?
Now Chase was really a handyman for St. Pats. He did a lot of dirty work for St. Pats and he’s a team player, a total team player who I think can definitely have a very good career on the college level. He’s well schooled on the game of basketball. He came from a very good program as well in St. Pats. He had some very good games his senior year. The game that comes to mind for me that Chase played well in was against Oak Hill Academy, a nationally televised game. He played extremely well against one of the best programs in the country. The thing about Chase is that he’s got a good basketball IQ, is a very good passer and he grabs rebounds. I think he can be an even better rebounder. He’s exceptionally strong. I don’t think he realizes how strong he is. But he’s very, very strong and he’s got nice touch for a big guy. I think like Matt, Chase will be able to contribute and do some things inside and out.
How did the recruitment of King develop, and how much will his GW experience benefit the team?
Well without question, Travis’ experience along with the experience of Justin Fry, who sat out last year and is a senior, and having Chris De La Rosa, who’s also an experienced player, I think that helps us immensely. Travis knows what it takes to be successful and when I’m talking about successful, I’m not just talking about winning, though winning’s a big part of that. But I always say that you have to be able to do a lot of other things that lead up to winning. I think Travis brings those intangibles to the table. His leadership abilities are impeccable. He’s very positive and he also works hard on top of that. Guys will be able to feed off his energy and his passion. And he’s a winner. I just remember in high school, watching him play and watching him get after it. We also tried recruiting him out of high school, but we’re definitely glad to have him now and we’re excited about his being on our team, and also bringing that leadership quality that we feel is going to be very, very important for us.
Jamar Wertz obviously was redshirted last year as was Fry. Will they play big roles this year?
Yes, without question. Justin , once again, he’s a gamer, too. He played in our championship game in 2008 and was an integral part of our success there, and he was an integral part of us going back in ’09. So he definitely knows what it takes to be successful in the collegiate level. He can share those experiences with the guys that are coming in, with Matt Conway and Chase Plummer. He can also share those experiences with the guys who played for us last year as freshmen and let them know. He’s certainly been a big influence on Jamar Wertz, as they sat out together last year. That’s very beneficial for us and our program. I look back at Justin when he came in as a freshman, and he was very quiet and you could hardly get two words out of him. Now, just being able to sit out from his injury last year and be able to see a lot of things on the floor and in the locker room, I think that gave him a different perception on the whole scope of college basketball and how we do things here at UMBC. I think he always understood that, but he got a chance to see it from the side of being on the bench and seeing certain things on the floor. I think it was an eye-opener for his development, not only as a player but as a young man as well.
With Jamar, he can score the basketball. He’s got uncanny moves to the basket, he’s got a nice shot and he’s a gamer. He’s got that basketball savvy, so to speak. It doesn’t seem like he’s rattled that much. He goes out and he plays. He’s a competitor. His high school team won the state championship his senior year in Suffolk, Va., at King’s Fork High School. He was an integral part to that. He was also on the team as a freshman and sophomore when they were struggling. Junior year they progressed and senior year they won a championship. So he understands what it’s all about and what it takes to be good, and how hard you have to work to have a good team. For him to sit out last year, it just gave him a chance to grow physically and also mentally. I thought it was a big step in the right direction.
What kind of expectations do you have for the season and which players are you really going to count on to realize those expectations?
Well obviously our expectation is all about progression. I can sit here and tell you that the expectation is to win the [America East] championship and go to the NCAA tournament. Yeah, those things are big and they’re valuable and they’re important. We don’t want to deviate from that. But once again, I just think about wanting to see the growth of Chris De La Rosa from sophomore year to junior year. I think he’ll be a tremendous point guard for us. You want to see Nick Groce develop from his freshman year to his sophomore year. And obviously, Brian Neller, who’s had a good spring, you want to see those guys get better. That’s what I’m looking at – how much better guys have gotten from freshman year to sophomore year, from sophomore year to junior year. That is the telltale sign which leads to a good program.
My expectation of these guys is all about progression. How good are you going to be and how many sacrifices are you going to make this summer? We’re going to bring those kids back and we’re going to put it all together for the good of our entire team. I’m looking forward to us showing progression. To me, that’s what it’s all about -- how we can progress and get better from the first half of the year to the second half of the year, and the second half going into the postseason. To me, the other stuff will take care of itself.
Recruits today just witnessed the 4-26 year, but you’re not that far removed from the NCAA tournament. How do you think recruits reconcile those highs and lows?
Here’s the thing I always talk to guys about: it’s players that make things happen. You look at the Dukes and the Kentuckys and the Marylands. Well, if they don’t have good players, they don’t have good programs. It’s just that simple. They have tradition, obviously, but we’ve developed a tradition here at UMBC. That’s what I let the young people know that, yeah, we struggled last year, that’s obvious. But I’m not making excuses and I certainly take the blame for it. But when you bring in seven new guys, five are freshmen and two are transfers, a couple things have to take place. You have to learn how to play together, so you’re talking about cohesion, and the cohesiveness is so important now. You have to coach that nowadays. Years ago it would take care of itself. But you really have to monitor how guys are playing well with one another, and that’s big. That’s big in the corporate world as well. Getting players to understand their roles, getting players to understand how to play together [is crucial]. What you did in high school is not good enough now for the college level. You have to forget about what you did in high school to a degree, in order to move forward. And I think sometimes it takes new players a year or sometimes two years to understand that before they can kind of settle in and understand what the college experience is about.
As a coach, you can tell them, a prospective student, how it’s going to be different all you want. But they’re still giving you a stare and a look that says, ‘OK Coach, you’re pulling my leg.’ But then they go through the year and they’re playing with juniors and seniors. It’s a step up two levels. Now you need to be stronger mentally and physically. So they have to deal with that. Sometimes that can take away your confidence level. You’ve been this player with a lot of success and all of a sudden, things aren’t going as expected. You’re coming on to the college level and guys are really playing you close and not allowing you to get that shot. Players can second-guess themselves in everything going on around him. Sometimes it takes a while to get that player back, get his confidence back. That’s the whole part of going through the process. When I look back at last year, I would say this about our players: they didn’t give up. Yeah, it may not have shown up record-wise, but it showed in a lot of areas, which made me feel good as opposed to players on the court just getting in and getting up. But what they did do was gain a valuable learning experience. They learned how hard you have to work on this level to compete.
2008 Baltimore Sun photo of Randy Monroe