At UMBC, the day begins with basketball


The UMBC basketball team has been working out from 6 until 8:30 a.m. daily in preparation for what could be a serious run at the Big South Conference title.

"This is definitely tough," said leading returning scorer Skip Saunders. "I don't think I've ever been up this early, and it takes awhile to get adjusted.

"In the summer, I was working late and used to waking up at noon. I'm not a morning person at all, and getting up at 5 o'clock was a jolt. You need time to get loose, and every now and then, you see somebody moaning and groaning because he's so tired.

"And forget about your social life. This pretty much takes care of it."

However, coach Earl Hawkins said he likes the idea that his players are physically fresh at that time of day and discounts the notion that he was looking for a way to get them to bed at a respectable hour.

"The main problem was the scheduling for the gym [availability]," Hawkins said. "Working in the morning solved that. With classes and labs, there was not that much flexibility later in the day.

"And the players really haven't faced the problems of the day yet, so they're more focused. They handle it pretty well. I like this way better."

By any measure of time, this could be the season the Retrievers become a force. There is an optimistic aura around this team, which won five of its last eight and eight of its last 15, has a solid influx of newcomers and excellent senior leadership in guard Saunders and center-forward Sonique Nixon.

Size could be a major asset for UMBC in the guard-oriented Big South with the addition of 7-foot-2 Pascal Fleury, a transfer from Georgetown, and 6-9 Vladimir Milosevic, a native of Croatia.

With those two -- plus 6-8 Nixon and 6-7 Kevin Bellinger, all 230 pounds or more -- Hawkins has the options of pounding teams or giving Nixon the freedom to operate at forward, where he can be more of a scoring threat from outside.

"Once we get everybody together, it will be tough to match up with us," said Saunders. "Everybody wants to run and gun and put the ball up in our league, but we'll have size going for us, too."

It will be a while before Fleury gets into the rotation. He fractured an elbow in a pickup game the week before practice and !B probably won't be available until mid-December.

When he returns, look for his defensive presence to make an impact.

The strangeness of a new league and a lot of injuries hurt the Retrievers during their midseason slump a year ago. The first problem obviously has been alleviated, but keeping veteran point guard Spencer Ferguson and his backups, Eric Hayes and Eric Wyatt, healthy may be the key.

UMBC can ill afford to lose two point men at the same time again.

"It was nightmarish for me when I had to go to the point at the College of Charleston," said Saunders. "I don't have a point guard mentality, and I showed it."

Ferguson "has grown a lot," according to Hawkins and is "ready to step forward" as the replacement for the team's biggest loss, Dana Harris.

He will start with Saunders, Nixon and Chris Thompson (Woodlawn), who has blossomed quickly at small forward. The other position is up for grabs, but there are plenty of candidates among Artie Walker, Matt Butts, freshman Mark Lay, Felton Scott and Damon Tweedy.

Hawkins said the new 35-second clock will have no effect on a team that isn't shy about getting the ball headed toward the basket.

"We're still going to get up and down the floor," he said. "The clock won't be a factor, but I hope we understand better what is a good shot."

"I don't even think 25 seconds would make that big a change for us with the weapons we have," said Saunders.

The non-league schedule is rugged, including Maryland, California, Xavier and two teams picked to finish high in their respective leagues, Robert Morris and Drexel.

But UMBC has gained respect and is better armed to confront both the schedule and injury setbacks.

Hawkins is not overly impressed by the Big South's preseason picks, which list his team right behind defending champ Coastal Carolina and regular-season champ Towson State.

"The only thing a poll is good for is to look at it and say, 'I want to finish higher,' " he said. "I'm glad we're getting respect, but I don't want this team to be satisfied to finish third."

A long academic break in January will help the Retrievers weather the midseason doldrums again, and Hawkins hopes the additional depth will improve the defense.

There were rumors that Hawkins' job was in jeopardy toward the end of last season. They were subdued by the strong finish that created new hope.

"Sure, you wonder if you'll be back," he said. "But I don't think you can get caught up in that. You do what you can, work as hard as youcan and, hopefully, you land on your feet."

From the looks of this roster, the coach is standing pretty tall.

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