Aki Thomas hopes emphasis on in-state recruiting keys turnaround for UMBC

Aki Thomas hopes emphasis on in-state recruiting keys turnaround for UMBC
UMBC basketball players Ryan Cook, left, and Quentin Jones are two former walk-ons who are playing well for the Retrievers. Coach Aki Thomas hopes to strengthen UMBC by focusing on local recruits. (Gene Sweeney Jr. / The Baltimore Sun)

When UMBC men's basketball coach Randy Monroe resigned less than a month before the start of the season, he left behind a roster almost devoid of in-state players.

Aki Thomas didn't understand. The then-acting head coach said it was a "weird thing" to have a roster with so many out-of-state players. With Baltimore and its surrounding areas such a fertile recruiting ground, how was it possible that 10 of the Retrievers' 14 team members were from Pennsylvania or New Jersey?

UMBC has just two Maryland natives on the roster — both walk-ons — and neither was recruited by the Retrievers. Senior guard Ryan Cook joined the team last season after transferring from Division II Chestnut Hill, and junior guard Quentin Jones earned a spot on the roster after playing his freshman season at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Ala.

But the two players who started their UMBC careers without scholarships aren't benchwarmers; they're success stories.

Cook leads the team in points and rebounds and Jones starts at point guard, serving as prime reasons Thomas has placed a renewed emphasis on in-state recruiting in his first season as coach.

"You bring in a local kid who's from here, I think they have probably a little more vested interest in the school," said Thomas, whose Retrievers play Hartford in the America East tournament quarterfinals today at 2 p.m. "They'll have more pride in the school and the area, and they'll bring in more of a crowd with their family and friends, hopefully, in attendance at games. I think those are two key values."

It's those reasons that led Cook and Jones back to Baltimore. Cook was lightly recruited out of St. Vincent Pallotti, the only interest coming from Division III schools Goucher and Hood.

Cook attended an athletics open house at Chestnut Hill's Philadelphia campus, and coach Jesse Balcer told the guard he'd give him a shot. He averaged 12.5 points and 4.3rebounds in his first two seasons before deciding he wanted to be closer to home.

After sending out applications to many of the area's colleges and universities, Cook was accepted at UMBC.

And even though he didn't have a spot on the basketball team when he arrived on campus, he made his name known to the coaching staff. He ate lunch in Monroe's office "every day" and spent all the time he could on the court.

"One day I was playing on the recreation side of the gym, and Coach Aki and Coach [John] Zito were there playing pickup," Cook said. "They played on my team and they were like, 'Whoa, we'll give you a chance to play.'"

Cook earned his spot on the roster before the 2011-12 season, about the same time Jones did.

Jones was barely recruited coming out of Mount St. Joseph, and the only real interest came from John Meeks, coach at Louisburg in North Carolina.

When Meeks took the job at Wallace State in July 2010, Jones followed him.

The 6-foot guard averaged nine points and five assists with the Lions before deciding to transfer after his freshman season. Jones' Baltimore-based Amateur Athletic Union coach knew Monroe, and the Ellicott City native asked whether he could join the team.

Two years later, he's running the offense.

"I never thought I would be the starting point guard at UMBC," Jones said. "In high school or in junior college."

In fact, neither could have predicted the type of success they have had this season.

Jones, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the team's second game and missed the next 11 games, has started 14 of 16 games at point guard since the start of America East play on Jan. 2 and is averaging 3.2 points and a team-high 2.7 assists during that stretch.

Cook has been even better. His team-high 15 points per game rank No. 4 in the conference, and he leads the Retrievers with 6.3 rebounds per game despite being just 6 feet 2.

"Anything is possible," Cook said. "But I didn't really think this would be the outcome."

Thomas didn't either.

In the first-year coach's experience, walk-ons are players who sit at the end of the bench and are happy to get just a few minutes on the floor at the end of blowouts. Cook and Jones aren't playing infrequently, though. Cook is averaging more than 31 minutes per game, and Jones is playing more than 24.

"I didn't really envision it," Thomas said. "It's a great story to see those guys doing so well [for] starting without scholarships."

Thomas hopes to use the success of Cook and Jones to help get other area kids to commit to UMBC. He said the program had been recruiting local talent in recent years but for some reason it has fallen short.

Entering this season, UMBC hadn't signed a high school player from Maryland since its landed St. Mary's guard Nick Groce in 2009, and only three in-state recruits have signed in the past six years.

Now that he's in charge, though, Thomas is making more of an effort to persuade recruits to don the black and gold.

He has only been on the job for four months, but he has already landed his first in-state commitment in 2013 forward Will Darley, a Timonium native and Dulaney graduate who is playing at Fishburne Military School in Virginia.

It's only one guy, but it's a start.

"If you're recruiting kids in the area, you should be able to get more each year," Thomas said. "It's nice to see your name in your local newspaper, your local TV channel you grew up watching and reading at home your whole life."

The Retrievers finished the regular season 7-22 — three wins better than last year. That improvement led athletic director Dr. Charles Brown to remove the "acting" tag and name Thomas the head coach.

And with Thomas staying, Cook and Jones said they'd like to see UMBC's newfound commitment to in-state recruiting continue. The program is getting better every day, Jones said, and it has a chance to do something great.

Thomas wants it to continue, too. After all, UMBC is a local school that could be a destination for a lot of the area's best talent, and he wants the chance to persuade some of those recruits to form the foundation of what he hopes will be his new-look Retrievers.

"There's a lot more family coming to your games, and you know the area, so you're more comfortable," Cook said. "And you'll be closer to home. How much better can it get?"