To say the least, the past two years have been a helter-skelter whirlwind for UMBC head coach Aki Thomas.
On Oct. 10, 2012, UMBC’s then-head coach Randy Mornoe abruptly resigned after eight years running the show and nearly two decades on the coaching staff. At just 33 years of age, and only two days before the official start of practices, Thomas was thrown into the fire as the interim head coach of a team that had won a total of seven games over the past three season’s combined – a task akin to taking the helm of a sinking ship with a hole-riddled hull in the middle of a monsoon, and charged with sailing it out of the gale while simultaneously bailing water.
During that first season, the undermanned and over-matched Retrievers won seven regular season games, equaling their total from the previous three seasons combined. After Thomas had the interim tag removed and had his contract extended for one year at the end of the regular season, the Retrievers followed that up by out-fighting and out-toughing third-seeded Hartford in the America East Tournament for the program’s first tournament win since 2009.
Expectations were high for Thomas and the Retrievers heading in to the 2013-2014 season. With several highly-touted local recruits suiting up for the Retrievers, for the first time since 2008-2009 season — the year after UMBC went to the NCAAs in 2008 – there was noticeable buzz and excitement around the program. After showing some promise during the non-conference slate, Thomas was signed to a two-year extension by new athletic director Tim Hall.
However, while UMBC improved upon their win totals from the previous season, winning nine games and competing with several bigger programs during the non-conference (Duquesne and George Washington among them), there was a feeling of unmet expectations at season’s end: UMBC finished sixth in the standings, posting their best finish, best overall record and best conference record since 2008-2009, but the season ended in disaster and disappointment. Following the final game of the regular season, junior guard Joey Getz left the program.
A week later, just before the team headed to Albany for the conference tournament, senior forwards Brett Roseboro and Chase Plummer, along with freshman wing Charles Taylor, were suspended for what was deemed a “violation of team rules,” leaving the Retrievers with just seven players in uniform. What followed was an 86-56 bludgeoning at the hands of Albany (the tournament’s eventual champion) in the first round. After seeing freshman guard Bryan Harris leave the program halfway through the season, UMBC also saw forward David Kadiri (who never lived up to his preseason billing) transfer out of the program.
However, underneath the debris of disappointment – much of which could be attributed to the senior class, brought in under the previous head coach — if you dug a little bit, there were still several positive signs, chief among them point guard and league Rookie of the Year Rodney Elliot, whose freshman season (15 ppg, .452 FG%, 3.6 apg, 3.9 rpg) ranks among the best rookie years (statistically) of the past decade.
Beyond the individual play of Elliot, the team made huge strides defensively. After ranking dead last in the America East in defense in conference play in Monroe’s final three seasons, and eighth out of nine teams in 2012-2013, the team finished fifth in the league in Thomas’ first season without the interim tag.
Thomas, who played three seasons of college ball at BCS program Colorado, before using up his final year of eligibility at Howard, sat down with OBW to discuss the team’s struggles last season, their goals moving ahead, the development of last season’s recruits and a glimpse of this season’s newcomers. He also talked about the dynamics of overseeing a staff that includes a former player and several former peers of his, the juggling the demands of being a head coach with the responsibilities of being a father, how he decided to hang up his sneakers and join the coaching ranks, and the revolution that assistant John Zito seems to be training for. (more…)