- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

BALTIMORE — While the upper echelon of the ratings percentage index is analyzed ad nauseam in February and early March, there are a couple hundred teams quietly filling in the rest of the rankings. Most have no chance of reaching the postseason without winning a conference tournament, generally unrecognizable to casual fans amid a motley collection of hyphens and directional designations.

Maryland-Eastern Shore (UMES for short) usually is listed with both, a near-perfect example of a college basketball program toiling far from intense fan scrutiny and television’s bright lights. The Hawks play in a one-bid league, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and help finance the rest of their athletic department with early season guarantee games on the road.

Last year, though, the Hawks were the ultimate have-not — at least according to the RPI. UMES finished behind Longwood, a first-year Division I program, and Savannah State, which didn’t even win a game.

In fact, the Hawks wound up behind everyone in Division I, according to collegerpi.com.

Number three-three-oh.

“Dead last,” guard Jesse Brooks says with a smile.

It’s easy for Brooks to grin about the 2-26 season — he was playing at Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn, Md., at the time. But the Hawks have made modest progress this year, trading a ceaseless string of blowouts for close losses and a smattering of victories. They lost 67-59 to Norfolk State last night to fall to 5-16 this season.

The Hawks underwent a massive roster makeover in the offseason (10 players were added, and only three players from last year are on the active roster), and three freshmen start at guard. The lineup ensures a mix of promise and frustration as UMES grows up after the most forgettable of seasons.

“We’re maturing, but can we mature enough to put together three games in the [MEAC] tournament, or four games in the tournament, depending on where we finish,” second-year coach Larry Lessett says a few hours before facing MEAC power Coppin State last week. “That in itself tells you how far we’ve come, that people are actually talking about that.”

Step by step

No one harbored such illusions last season, Lessett’s first as a Division I coach. The prospect of building a program three decades removed from its halcyon days (the Hawks finished second in the 1973 NAIA tournament and won a game in the 1974 NIT) intrigued Lessett, a basketball lifer who has worked at an assortment of colleges as well as for a minor league team.

He landed at a school with a well-earned reputation as a coaching graveyard. Rob Chavez bolted for Portland after going 16-12 in 1993-94. Four coaches and a dozen years later, the Hawks are still waiting for another winning season.

It certainly wasn’t happening last year. Opponents outscored the Hawks by an average of 23 points, and UMES endured a 17-game losing streak.

“I have a 7-year-old son, and we used to play Candy Land a lot. If you land on a certain color, there’s a bridge,” Lessett says. “I thought there would be some bridges — not shortcuts, but bridges — to being successful a little quicker. I did realize, if you want to call it a revelation, that there weren’t going to be any bridges.

“You literally had to go step one, step two. There wasn’t going to be a bridge from two to four. There just wasn’t.”

The miserable season ended with a first-round departure in the MEAC tournament, and that figured to be the last anyone would hear from the Hawks until they endured another round of road games against major-conference schools to open this season.

Forward Tim Parham, who led the MEAC in rebounding and double-doubles, had other ideas. He entered his name into the NBA Draft after averaging 11.4 points and 8.6 rebounds and received evaluations from pro scouts. Parham says he planned to return to school all along, but the shrewd decision brought him attention as he entered his senior season.

“I figured it was a good move for me to get some looks and get some people to the school,” Parham says. “You’ve got a MEAC school, and somebody puts their name in the draft and people say, ‘Ooh, he put his name in the draft. The NBA isn’t that far behind.’ ”

It also drew attention to UMES, which could use any favorable publicity it could get. Lessett, initially irritated he might be without his best player this season, soon began fielding calls from potential recruits and media members curious about his moribund program and Parham, who announced plans to turn pro even though virtually no one had ever heard of him.

“For 24 hours I wanted to kill him,” Lessett says. “And then when I saw the benefits it created for the program, I could have kissed him.”

‘Middle of nowhere’

Maryland-Eastern Shore has an enrollment of 3,600. Its gorgeous campus in Princess Anne in Somerset County includes the 5,500-seat Hytche Athletic Center, a seven-year-old facility dubbed the “Hawk Dome.”

There’s just one problem with the postcard-worthy setting: location.

“In the middle of nowhere,” Parham says succinctly.

Princess Anne is 2½ hours from Baltimore, Washington and Norfolk, three hours from Philadelphia. The Hawks, who usually travel with the women’s team, cannot fly out of Salisbury’s tiny airport because prop planes can’t carry the full traveling party. So even when UMES enjoys a rare flight, it is still preceded by a long chartered bus ride to BWI or Norfolk.

Lessett shrugs off geographical concerns (“When you’re selling playing time at the Division I level, that’s usually enough,” he says) and perhaps for good reason. Two of his freshmen starters — Brooks and Ed Tyson — attended high school in the Baltimore area and say the location is convenient to see family and friends.

There is a culture shock for players like Parham, a native of Chicago’s South Side. However, he has grown accustomed to his routine at UMES, where there are few if any of the distractions a big city might offer.

“Basketball and class, class and basketball, practice and class, study hall and get something to eat and you’re back in the gym,” Parham says. “That’s how it is in Princess Anne.”

Oh, the places you’ll go

A basketball player at UMES is assured of playing in well-known venues, if only to help finance the rest of the Hawks’ athletic department. In Parham’s three seasons, the Hawks have visited Auburn, Baylor, Fresno State, George Washington, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Rutgers, St. John’s and Virginia Tech.

Predictably, the Hawks lost to each by at least 24 points, the price for cashing a big check at every stop.

“Our school has to pay the bills,” Parham says. “We’re a small school, and they’re money games. It’s not likely that we’re going to win, but we try to win. I wish we would have.”

League road games are an adventure as well. The Hawks played at Florida A&M last month and dressed in a classroom because the school doesn’t provide a visitors’ locker room. The Rattlers’ gym doesn’t have air conditioning, and the Hawks naturally went to overtime in the stifling heat before losing by four.

Two days later at Bethune-Cookman, the Hawks played in a venue that was part arena, part concert hall. A stage was set up just feet behind the baseline, and the ball caromed onto it after one of Parham’s emphatic dunks.

“There were people up there playing music and dancing,” says Tyson, who attended Walbrook High School in Baltimore. “I said, ‘What in the world is this?’ as soon as I came in. It’s like a middle school gym.”

The first few road trips always surprise the freshmen, and Parham smiles at what he’s seen. One of his favorite stories involves a visit to South Carolina State, whose arena received a cosmetic upgrade just before the Hawks arrived.

“They just got done painting it when we went in there for a walkthrough two years ago,” Parham says. “Everybody was getting sick from smelling the fumes from the paint. My head was ringing from just smelling the fumes [while] running up and down the court. We’ve played in a couple of crazy places, but I love every minute of it.”

That attitude was a virtual necessity in the past, but some early victories have made it easier to enjoy this season.

Turning it around

Lessett, who praises the commitment UMES’ administration has made to the basketball program since he arrived, already sees progress. Freshmen Troy Jackson and Tyson both score in double-figures for the up-tempo Hawks, and Brooks averages more than five assists.

Parham is UMES’ primary inside presence, averaging 13.5 points and 9.3 rebounds. No longer are the Hawks mere fodder for the rest of the league — they lost by three last month to defending MEAC champ Delaware State, one of several close defeats this season.

“I had a coach come up to me and say, ‘You all are real good. Once you get it together you’re going to be right there competing,’ ” Brooks says. “Coaches around the league, they know. We just have to go out there and prove it.”

The Hawks aren’t bashful about their aspirations of earning the first NCAA bid in school history, and their competitiveness in league play provides optimism for a run in the conference tournament.

Realistically, the Hawks probably don’t have the consistency or the depth to make such a push this season. Pragmatism aside, it is almost cruel to voice such thinking about a program that was devoid of hope just a year ago.

“The school, they haven’t had a winning season in God knows when, so it’s just great to win games,” Tyson says. “Next year would be fine, but I want to do it this year.”

On this particular night, the Hawks couldn’t look any greener. Just 48 hours after a win at Morgan State — and the subsequent bus ride home and trip back — the three freshmen guards combine to shoot 5-for-30 as a disciplined Coppin State defense shifts from zone to man and back to zone.

Parham doesn’t take a shot until the second half, and the Hawks are held scoreless for more than seven minutes en route to a 79-53 loss.

“It’s a process,” Lessett warily reminds a reporter afterward.

Still, the process is under way. The Hawks have more than doubled their win total from a year ago, and their RPI is 308 (out of 334). UMES plays five of its final seven games at home and could use the stretch as a springboard for the MEAC tournament.

The Hawks’ promise lies in their guards, who only will improve with experience. Of greater importance is how much the young Hawks embrace the opportunity to build a program, one that had nowhere to go but up upon their arrival.

“As a competitor, you look for challenges,” Brooks says with another wide grin. “And this is the biggest challenge out there.”

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