* Uptempo Navy hoping to speed toward respectability. Story on Page F9.
The operative 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 last nine years. The lone exception was 1988-89, Hawkins' first with the Retrievers, when players recruited by his predecessor, current Bullets assistant coach 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 do 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-foot-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 junior forward Emmanuel Fasaye also joined in the Jekyll and Hyde last season, when the Retrievers shot a weak 41.0 percent from the field and were outrebounded by more than six a game.
Harris, a returning starter at the point, 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.
UMBC at a glance
Coach: Earl Hawkins, fourth season (36-49)
1990-91 record: 7-22, 4-8 in East Coast Conference
Home court: UMBC Fieldhouse (4,024)
Radio: WERQ (1010 AM)
Make tournament plans if: the NCAA relents and gives the ECC champion an automatic berth, and the Retrievers use the home-court advantage to claim their first conference title at the Division I level. UMBC nearly upset Towson State in the ECC semifinals last season, but it has no seniors and needs much improvement to move out of the bottom 100 in Division I.
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..RETURNEES Name .. .. .. .. .. Class Pos. Ht. .Wt. .. .1990-91 statistics
Derell Thompson .. .Jr. ..G/F .6-4 .185 .. ..10.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg
Brian Watkins .. .. Jr. ..F .. 6-5 .220 .. .. 7.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg
Dana Harris .. .. ..Jr. ..G .. 6-0 .150 .. .. 4.7 ppg, 5.0 apg
Stanley Wright .. ..So. ..F .. 6-5 .210 .. .. 7.4 ppg, 2.3 rpg
Emmanuel Fasaye .. .Jr. ..F .. 6-8 .225 .. .. 3.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg
Skip Saunders .. .. So. ..G .. 6-0 .165 5.4 ppg, 41 3-pointers
Spencer Ferguson .. So. ..G .. 5-11 180 .. .. .. .. .. 3.7 ppg
Melvin Swann .. .. .Jr. ..G .. 6-4 .185 .. .. .. .. .. 2.8 ppg
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..NEWCOMERS Name .. .. .. .. ..Class Pos. Ht. Wt. 1990-91 status