- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008

CATONSVILLE, Md. — Randy Monroe’s office at Retriever Activities Center provides a full view of a bustling artery of Maryland-Baltimore County’s campus, a place far different now than when Monroe joined the school’s basketball staff 14 years ago.

One of the biggest changes, though, could arrive in six weeks.

UMBC, rarely relevant in 20 seasons as a Division I program, enters tonight’s meeting with Stony Brook alone atop the America East. And it is no secret what possibilities the Retrievers (15-7, 7-2) are entertaining just past the midpoint in conference play.

“It’s definitely a feeling in the atmosphere, and we talk about that frequently and openly,” senior Cavell Johnson said. “And that feeling we talk about is going to the NCAA tournament.”

The Retrievers have every reason to feel that way, even though there is scant recent tradition to build upon.

UMBC might be best known in basketball circles as Jeff Bzdelik’s first coaching gig from 1986 to 1988, and its nomadic existence on the college hoops tableau never helped.

The Retrievers hopscotched from Division I independent to the East Coast Conference, from the Big South to the Northeast Conference, never staying longer than six years at any stop before a move to the America East in 2003-04. UMBC rolled up 20 wins in 2001-02 but has yet to reach even March Madness’ doorstep: a conference title game.

There were early hints this season might be different. The Retrievers won at La Salle and Richmond, then toppled George Washington well before anyone realized how much the Colonials would struggle. Perhaps just as surprising to a casual fan was a competitive 92-83 loss at Ohio State.

The Retrievers, though, could see it coming a year away.

They had a season of practice with three transfers who have transformed UMBC into a conference contender. Johnson, a 6-foot-8 forward from Fort Washington, had his scholarship revoked at James Madison after multiple run-ins with coach Dean Keener.

Stuck in limbo for a semester, he landed on the campus just an outlet pass from BWI, and guard and former James Madison teammate Ray Barbosa followed. Darryl Proctor, who played two seasons at Coppin State, also transferred and sat out last season.

All three are vital to the Retrievers’ thin seven-man rotation and combined for 47 points in last week’s 69-65 defeat of defending league champion Albany.

“They were always talking about how they were waiting on us to play since they’d heard so much about us,” said Proctor, a District Heights native whose team leads the country in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.56). “Now we’re just playing the way people want us to play.”

In the middle of it all is Monroe, an assistant for a decade under two coaches who earned the top job after the 2004 season. While the Retrievers gradually improved, Monroe was probably best known for banning his team from its locker room after a lackadaisical loss to New Hampshire two years ago.

But he’s also an energetic sort, quick to emphasize the importance of imagery and envisioning success before it happens. So it’s no surprise he encourages the Retrievers to ponder the postseason.

“I want them to believe it can happen,” Monroe said. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility. My thing with our guys in this situation, I want them to enjoy the journey. I don’t want them feeling like the weight of the world is on their shoulders each game. I want them to enjoy this. I want them to enjoy every minute, every second, every hour this year.”

No one should savor it more than Brian Hodges, a shooting guard from Upper Marlboro who averages a team-high 16.5 points and has played four seasons with the Retrievers. As such, he knows all too well the program’s immediate history.

While sitting in an on-campus conference room, Hodges couldn’t remember winning nearly as much earlier in his career. Sure enough, the Retrievers already have surpassed their victories total from each of the last five years.

“I’m trying to go out on top,” said Hodges, who missed Saturday’s victory at Vermont with a left ankle injury. “We haven’t done well the last three seasons I’ve been here, so it’s exciting and surprising to me that we’re doing so well this year. I just hope we keep it going and make the tournament.”

That would mean a victory March 15, the date of the America East final. The league’s title game is played at the highest remaining seed, ensuring a regular-season title is paramount to a friendly environment.

Monroe believes an opportunity to bring back former players with so much at stake would be especially rewarding. But for this year’s Retrievers, the chance to do something none of their predecessors accomplished might carry even greater meaning.

“In this arena? Yeah, I dream about it all the time,” Proctor said. “It’s going to be a good feeling when we cut down the nets. People told me about it, so I just want to. They cut down the nets, and I just want to be a part of winning one so I can have a story, too.”

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