When Darryl Proctor, Cavell Johnson and Ray Barbosa turned up on the UMBC campus in 2006 to play basketball, the three Division I transfers brought more than scoring potential and artistic flair.
They also brought a few traits that helped bring coach Randy Monroe's team closer together.
These were three established college players who knew their way around a kitchen as well as a court, who could serve up a tasty dinner as well as run a tantalizing fast break.
Three budding chefs equal one tightknit team. Well, two budding chefs, actually. Barbosa doesn't take a turn at the stove.
"You give Ray something to microwave, like Chef Boyardee," Johnson said, chuckling. "Me and Darryl definitely enjoy cooking. Spaghetti, baked chicken. Chicken Alfredo is the dish I do. My dad will come over and make us scrambled eggs and steaks, hearty breakfast-type meals."
They specialize in camaraderie. Their campus apartment is the hangout spot - and restaurant of choice - for the basketball team. Together, they are trying to cook up UMBC's best basketball season since the Retrievers left Division II in 1986.
For a school that has had just four winning seasons in 21 years at the Division I level, that would entail an America East championship and the school's first trip to the NCAA tournament. At the very least, the three transfers have changed the basketball landscape on the Catonsville campus.
"Our expectation is to go to the NCAA tournament," Barbosa said. "Day in and day out, we're working hard to get to that level. We love practicing to get better."
What separates this team from Monroe's previous three teams at UMBC is not only its talent level, but also its unselfish character. After a recent 18-point loss to UMBC at RAC Arena, Vermont coach Mike Lonergan marveled at the Retrievers' chemistry and in particular the selflessness of the three transfers.
"Very unusual," he said.
Johnson, a 6-8 senior forward, and Barbosa, a 6-2 combination guard, transferred together from James Madison. Johnson left Harrisonburg, Va., after he was suspended and had his scholarship revoked for breaking team rules. Barbosa, who ranks fifth in three-point baskets at JMU with 160, tired of losing (the Dukes won just 18 games in his three seasons).
Sitting out the 2006-07 season to accommodate NCAA transfer rules, they nevertheless made an early impression in practices.
"Practice was a lot more competitive," point guard Jay Greene said. "These guys got us a lot better last year, and we helped them prepare for this year."
Proctor came to UMBC because he wanted to stay close to home (District Heights) and play on the same team with his childhood friend, Brian Hodges. With four players averaging double figures in scoring - led by Hodges' 17.4 points - and one of the top point guards in the conference in Greene, the Retrievers' balance presents a challenge to opposing teams.
Their unselfishness turns that balance into a cutting edge.
"Any night, any one of us can score 20 points," said Proctor, who averages 14.8. "It doesn't matter who, as long as we win. We'll pass up shots to give somebody else a better shot."
Said Greene: "There's no selfish player on this team."
Monroe calls it the most athletic team he has had and made this concession to the ample talent on hand: He lets his players improvise when they deem appropriate.
"With my other teams, I've probably been more rigid in terms of our style of play," he said. "But with this group, you have to give them the freedom to play the game because ... their talent level is completely different."
The Retrievers take a 12-7 record (4-2 America East) into tonight's game at Boston University, the conference's preseason favorite. They have lost two of their past three games and needed a buzzer-beater by Hodges to avert a third loss.
Greene, recruited from Whitehall, Pa., believes Monroe's program is ready to turn the corner. The team, he says, talks openly about reaching the NCAA tournament.
"I'd never been on a losing team in my life," Greene said. "That motivates you and makes you want to get better every day. We've been doing that the past two years. It's our time right now, and we deserve this and we earned this."