The word for UMBC basketball is: If.
If transfer Sony Nixon can make a bigger impression than he did at Old Dominion, the Retrievers' inside game will be solid and the Retrievers might begin to bridge the gap between themselves and East Coast Conference rival Towson State.
If juniors Derell Thompson, Brian Watkins, Dana Harris and Emmanuel Fasaye add consistency to their performance, coach Earl Hawkins can forget that he doesn't have a single senior.
If those developments don't occur -- and even if they do -- UMBC could be looking at its eighth losing season in the past nine years. The lone exception was 1988-89, Hawkins' first with the Retrievers, when players recruited by his predecessor, Jeff Bzdelik, went 16-12.
The 1989-90 season belonged to all-time leading scorer Larry Simmons, and the Retrievers learned about life without Larry last year. UMBC won five straight before throwing a two-point scare into Towson State in the ECC semifinals, but the late spurt left the final record at only 7-22. The Retrievers were 2-21 in mid-February.
Hawkins knows that it is a critical year for UMBC. While the school's administration is seeking to rectify a shaky conference picture -- the ECC has lost five members in recent years, and its champion does not have an automatic berth in the 1992 NCAA tournament -- the coach needs everyone on his roster to practice and play better.
"Watkins, Harris and Thompson all have to take on bigger roles this year," Hawkins said. "All have shown flashes of great play over the last two years, and it's time for them to do it every night. We have the makings of a good basketball team, but we have to a better job of dealing with the distractions."
UMBC's juniors and sophomores have been on a roller-coaster ride. Some examples:
* Thompson, a 6-4 swingman who is the team's top returning scorer and rebounder, sparkled as a freshman reserve. He struggled as a starter last year, however, when he made only 39.4 percent of his field goal attempts.
* Watkins, a 6-5 forward, averaged 8.0 points while playing 20 minutes a game as a freshman, and 7.6 during 26 minutes a game as a sophomore.
* Stanley Wright, a 6-5 sophomore leaper, averaged 16.4 points during one five-game stretch last January, and didn't score a single point during a subsequent five-game span.
Sophomore guard Skip Saunders and Fasaye, a forward, also joined in the Jekyll and Hyde last season, when the Retrievers shot 41.0 percent from the field and were out-rebounded by more than six a game.
Harris, a returning starter at the point, says he knows changes have to be made.
"We entered too many games last year playing not to lose, instead of trying to win," Harris said. "Every person on this team has a role to fill, and we have to find out what they are and do them. Everyone has to step it up a notch, and we can't depend on one player to turn it around."
Nixon, a 6-8 sophomore forward, is the one newcomer who has to make an immediate impact. As a freshman at Old Dominion in 1989-90, he played sparingly. One of five Retrievers who played in Prince George's County while Hawkins coached at Crossland High, Nixon needs to develop the potential he showed at Oxon Hill High.
Dion Andrews, a transfer from Allegany Community College, and freshman Kevin Bellinger are also needed to strengthen an inside game that lost Derrick Reid and Jim Frantz, UMBC's two most productive players in 1990-91.
Besides Reid and Frantz, also missing is a long stretch of road games. For the first time since they entered Division I in 1986, the Retrievers will play more home than away games, and the UMBC Fieldhouse will be the site of the ECC tournament next March 7-9.
The Retrievers will be in a familiar role in their opener, however. They begin Saturday at Kansas, which lost to Duke in last season's NCAA final.