Aki Thomas

Aki Thomas (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun / December 1, 2012)

Two days before basketball practice officially started last year, Aki Thomas was named UMBC's interim head coach following the unexpected resignation of Randy Monroe.

Heading into the 2013-14 campaign, Thomas has had the interim tag removed and several months to put his stamp on a Retrievers program that went 8-23 a year ago. 

Guards Ryan Cook, Brian Neller and Adrian Satchell have graduated, while sophomores Jarrell Lane, Jordan Wejnert and Will Wise transferred. Cook and Neller were the first- and third-leading scorers, respectively, on UMBC’s 2012-13 team.

The Retrievers’ second-leading scorer, senior forward Chase Plummer, is back, along with fellow starters Brett Roseboro (a senior center) and Quentin Jones (a senior point guard). Jamar Wertz, a senior guard, also returns, as well as sophomore point guard Aaron Morgan (who started 15 games as a freshman), sophomore forward Malik Garner and junior guard Joey Getz.

Seven newcomers, meanwhile, are set to join UMBC’s roster for the 2013-14 season. Combo guard Bryan Harris (Southern) transferred from Wofford and is eligible to play immediately. Other locals include point guard Rodney Elliott Jr. (John Carroll), forward Will Darley (Dulaney) and walk-on guard Ben Grace (Gilman). Former Springbrook forward Charles Taylor Jr. (who did a post-grad year at Mount Zion Prep in Baltimore), former Coolidge (D.C.) forward/center David Kadiri and junior college forward transfer Devarick Houston round out Thomas’ first full class as UMBC’s coach.

Thomas spoke with The Sun earlier this week about his team heading into the 2013-14 season.

Local recruiting was obviously a big emphasis for you. After so many years of UMBC not doing well in this area, how did you facilitate that change, and how receptive were the local coaches?

The local coaches were great. They were a big part of the reason why I wanted to recruit locally. I’ve been an assistant recruiting this area since my days at Howard. I was able to build some relationships with a lot of these local coaches. I know them a lot from summer time, things like that. They’ve been great. That’s why I’d like to believe it was a smooth transition to start recruiting some of the local talent in the area. That helped my decision – being able to recruit locally. The local coaches have been really good to me, just on a personal level since I’ve been coaching in this area for so long. But then facilitating the change didn’t take much. I’ve got some great assistants who were on board with what I was trying to do recruiting-wise. We were able to hit the ground running, get a couple guys in early in the area and then finish the class with more of what we believe will be good players who can help us.

You’ve got several guys with Baltimore-area ties, including Bryan Harris, Rodney Elliott, Charles Taylor and Will Darley. What do you expect from each?

I’ll start with Bryan. I’ve actually known Bryan’s dad for a while. We actually played pickup together for eight or nine years. I’ve actually been able to watch Bryan grow as a young man. He’d come into the gym with his dad as a young kid. You never think about him going away to college. But we’re getting him back as a transfer. I’m happy to have him. He’s a very hard worker, very dedicated and committed. He loves the game of basketball. He originally signed with Duquesne when Ron Everhart was there. He changed his mind when they had a coaching change and wound up going to Wofford. We were just lucky enough to get him as a transfer.

Rodney Elliott, everybody knows his dad. His dad was a big-time player for the University of Maryland, College Park. But Rodney, in watching him a lot, he’s a very talented point guard. He’s smart – he’s got a really high IQ. I really like that. He’s taken some big shots in his high school career. I’m hoping that will translate well over his college career. He’s got a fearless mentality. He comes from a good pedigree.

Charles Taylor is a high-level athlete. He loves playing basketball, loves working on his game. I don’t know if we’ve had a guy of his athleticism since I’ve been here – [maybe] the days of Cavell Johnson. He’s pretty athletic and is working on his perimeter game. He’s a high-energy kid.

Will Darley, man, I love Will Darley’s skill-set. Being that size, a legitimate 6-8, he’s a very good shooter. There’s a lot of different things he’ll be able to do once he gets a little bit stronger. He’s definitely skilled and his IQ is something I fell in love with right away. I think he’ll have a great career.

What do you like about the other newcomers, the big guys Kadiri and Houston?

Kadiri man, he’s a high-level, high-motor guy. He’s known for his shot-blocking and rebounding ability. He plays above the rim. He plays with a high intensity level. That’s going to help him come right into Division I. Usually going from high school to college at any level, the speed is definitely what’s hard for a younger player to really grasp on to. He plays at such a high intensity level that his transition might be a little bit easier. That’s just what he’s used to. He plays that way all the time. He’s definitely going to help us in that category.

Devarick Houston is a junior college kid from Georgia. He’s the only player in this class outside of the area, outside the DMV. He comes from Chattahoochee Technical College, right outside Atlanta. Devarick is a stretch 4, another high-motor guy with decent athleticism. Devarick is a tremendous defender, a really good kid who comes from a good background. He’s another guy who loves the game of basketball. He’s a gym rat, constantly working on his game, trying to improve. He’s going to be a pleasure to coach, man. So far he’s been great with everything we ask him to do. He’s a really good defender – that’s his strong suit – but his offense is not far behind. He just works so hard.

You have seven rotation guys coming back, but lost three others – two of which were in your top three for scoring. What are your thoughts on that group of returners and making up for those losses?

You can’t do it without your upperclassmen, your seniors and juniors leading the way. I preach that all the time. With so many new guys and young guys, our seniors and juniors will have to really step up and help lead, show these guys how to get these things done. We went out in recruiting and looked at the guys we had coming back – a good group coming back that are proven in our league. You lose the three seniors we lost who were very key in the success that we were able to have – the little bit of success. Brian Neller was the top shooter in the league. Ryan Cook, we know what he was able to do. Adrian Satchell did a lot of little things that didn’t really go in the stat sheet, but if you looked at the game tape, it’s there. We went out in recruiting looking for a big class of new guys. We were trying to find guys that meshed with the guys we had returning.

I’d imagine Plummer, Roseboro and Jones or maybe Morgan have designs on starting spots. Who else do you see emerging?

It’s a little too early to tell. We have so many new guys, and just as many old guys. One thing I can say is that I’m looking forward to practice. I’m really excited about that. Playing time and starting positions, all that kind of stuff, will be earned through hard work and effort in practice. Obviously, we have some guys who are proven. Quentin Jones had a fine season as our starting point guard. He definitely did a very good job. He’s having a tremendous summer, working very hard. He’s definitely somebody that’ll need to help lead us at the position. Chase Plummer and Brett Roseboro are both interior forces for us. Brett went down about midway through the season, but those guys are proven big guys in our league that really know how to rebound the ball. He’s a really physical player. We’re definitely going to need that this season. And they’re seniors. It’s great to have seniors in general, but having guys that are proven and know what they’re doing [is even more important]. Aaron Morgan spent a lot of time as a starter, then Q got back healthy and [Morgan] came off the bench. But he had valuable time as a starter last season.

Which of the returners do you see making a big jump in terms of production?

Oh, I think Malik Garner and Aaron Morgan, those guys are coming in after their freshman year. Once you get a chance to kind of feel your way through the whole college experience, your sophomore year is when you do make a jump – hopefully make a jump. I think those two guys are very good basketball players that have a chance to do that. Now that they have a year under their belt, they kind of know what’s expected of them. … Malik Garner, I thought he had a great freshman year. He’s having an awesome summer. We’re going to play him at a couple positions, try to play him out on the wing a little bit more. He has that capability. It’s going to be interesting. … And I can’t forget Joey Getz. I feel like he’s a kid who can have a nice jump from last year to this year. Missing those two guys – Ryan Cook and Brian Neller – as scorers, Joey Getz is a guy that can really score the ball. I definitely expect him to make a nice jump this year.

It’s been a long time since UMBC had a double-digit-winning season. Is this the year the Retrievers get back? Are you satisfied with the progress so far?

As coaches, we’re never pleased. We’re always trying to get better, give something that can help your team be a little more successful. We’d like to do better than eight wins. We were able to go in a positive direction from where we were before, but we always want to improve. That’s just where I am right now. I just want to keep improving – every day, day by day. Not just looking at the whole body of work, but improving in every little thing that we’re doing. I’ll be pleased with improving every day, but it’s day to day, one day at a time.

I’m looking forward to the preseason and moving forward. I’m kind of anxious to see how it’s all going to play out. Our league, with so much realignment, guys graduating and recruiting, I’m just interested to see how everything shakes out. I’m excited. I’ve got to be patient and wait.

mbracken@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mattbracken