UMBC veterans are hoping 4th season will be a first Move to Big South raises expectations

November 27, 1992|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

Four years after launching their college careers at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, it has come down to this for Brian Watkins and Dana Harris:

One last chance at a winning record, one last chance at a conference title, one last chance at the NCAA tournament.

In 1989, Watkins followed his basketball coach, Earl Hawkins, from Crossland High in Fort Washington to UMBC. Watkins has enjoyed a solid career at UMBC, but it has not matched the success he and Hawkins experienced at Crossland, which won a state championship in 1986.

Instead, there has been the frustration of seasons undermined by injury and illness and a shortage of manpower. This year, Watkins says, will be different.

"In past years, we didn't apply ourselves," he said as he prepared for his senior season. "The frustration was focused at ourselves. We said we'd do this or that, but we never applied ourselves. This year, Coach has put more pressure on us to be more disciplined."

Harris, who arrived from Bethesda-Chevy Chase in 1989 as a walk-on guard too small to win a scholarship, said he feels much the same way. In a year when the Retrievers move into the Big South Conference, expectations are up.

"We have a good outlook," Harris said. "We know there's an opportunity to go to the NCAAs."

Watkins, a 6-foot-5 power forward, and Harris, a 6-foot point guard, are co-captains on a team that could be the best in Hawkins' five seasons as coach.

If it is, it will come in the nick of time. Hawkins is in the final year of a contract he signed under a different administration.

Hawkins, reluctant to discuss his status, said he has not spoken to athletic director Charles Brown about his future.

"I'm not feeling a great deal of pressure," said Hawkins, who has a four-year record of 46-68 at UMBC. "Given the fact we had injuries that set the program back over three or four years . . . all things equal, I feel we'll get a fair shake at being here in the future. The program is on the upward swing."

The players are not oblivious to the situation. "We all have the understanding we have to win," Harris said. "But we don't feel pressure. We want to win for ourselves. And if we win for ourselves, we will win for him."

UMBC is coming off a 10-19 season in which Hawkins installed a new offense and defense, going to a more aggressive style of play. The Retrievers scored at a school-record pace, averaging 81.9 points, but struggled defensively. They ended with an 8-8 run after starting 2-11.

They have four starters returning -- having lost a fifth when small forward Derell Thompson was suspended for violating team and school rules in September.

Harris, who set a school record with 177 assists, and Skip Saunders return in the backcourt. Watkins returns at forward and 6-8 Soni Nixon at center. Nixon, who transferred from Old Dominion last year, averaged 15.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and had a school-record 52 blocks.

Artie Walker, Chris Thompson and freshman Felton Scott will vie for Thompson's spot.

"If we have a strength, it's our depth," Hawkins said. "The program can withstand injuries and illness more than it could because of the numbers we have."

The Retrievers, who open Tuesday at Maryland, have senior leadership, which they haven't had in previous seasons. There were no seniors on the squad a year ago.

It's a team that Hawkins says can win big. How big? Hawkins says the team's goals are to win 20-plus games, take the Big South regular-season and tournament championships and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.

"It's all realistic," he said. "It's in our hands. We need to go to work and be physically and mentally ready to get the job done."

Tomorrow: UMES.

UMBC at a glance

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Coach: Earl Hawkins (fifth season, 46-68)

Affiliation: Big South Conference

Last season's record: 10-19, 8-4 in East Coast Conference

Radio: WERQ (1010 AM)

Starters lost: Forward Derell Thompson

Key returnees: Forward Brian Watkins, guard Dana Harris, guard Skip Saunders, center Soni Nixon

Outlook: Hawkins' switch to a pressure defense and more up-tempo offense a year ago should pay dividends this season. The Retrievers were playing well in the new system at the end of the year. They must overcome the loss of suspended Thompson, but their bench players figure to make up the points and rebounds. Harris and Watkins are leaders by example. Nixon has an intimidating presence inside, but is foul-prone. Saunders is the best outside shooter, and freshman guard Felton Scott could have an immediate impact. The Retrievers don't have great size, but they have quickness and the ability to score. If they stay away from the big injury, they could have a big year.

Returning players Name Yr. Pos. Ht. Wt. Fast breaks

Kevin Bellinger So. F 6-7 225 Made ECC All-Rookie team

Emmanuel Fasaye Sr. C 6-8 225 Physical player with good touch

Spencer Ferguson Jr. G 6-0 180 Strong defensive player

Dana Harris Sr. G 6-0 155 Averaged 6.8 assists at point guard

Soni Nixon Jr. C 6-8 230 Flashes of greatness, 15.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg

Skip Saunders Jr. G 6-0 180 Most improved last year with 12 ppg Melvin Swann Sr. G 6-4 185 Provides defense, leadership

Chris Thompson So. F 6-6 200 From Woodlawn, could win starting job

Artie Walker So. F 6-3 190 Finished strong last year

Brian Watkins Sr. F 6-5 220 Stabilizing player, 11.1 ppg and 5.6 rpg

Stanley Wright Jr. F 6-5 210 Offense off the bench

Newcomers

Matt Butts Jr. F 6-5 190 Transfer from Hagerstown JC

CFelton Scott Fr. G 6-4 170 Versatile, all-state athlete from Fla.

Damon Tweedy Fr. F 6-6 195 All-PG County at Roosevelt High

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