The America East has a reputation for being soft at the bottom, and those are not alternative facts or fake news, the bottom three teams that will compete in next week’s conference tournament are 331, 313, and 334 in KenPom, respectively.
The facts also say, however, it was worse last season when the final four seeds in the America East Tournament were 325, 323, 336, and 334. No. 334 and dead last at 3-13 was UMBC, which wasn’t a shock to anyone following the league, the last time they had been above 310 was 2007-08 (a glorious season which saw them 13-3 and in the NCAA Tournament).
This year didn’t portend to be a whole lot better under first-year coach Ryan Odom (who came from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne), but here we were on Saturday afternoon with the Retrievers playing in an actual big game, at 9-6 in America East (and 18-10 overall), proving – at least temporarily – that it was possible to climb out of the depths of the league and make things much more interesting at the top.
What’s more, UMBC and Odom had done it with a kind of swashbuckling offense that was 347th in efficiency just two seasons ago. Now they are 49th in eFG% (53.8%) behind one of the more entertaining point guards you’ll see in 5’8” (listed) junior K.J. Maura, shooters Joe Sherburne and Will Darley, and slasher Jairus Lyles. They have played three games already this season where both teams have scored more than 100, beat Stony Brook, and came oh so close to beating league leader Vermont two weeks later.
Above all, they have rebooted the program, a lesson they could have learned from their opponent in the regular season finale Saturday: New Hampshire. It’s been discussed before here, but the Wildcats had 19 losing seasons and no tradition to speak of heading into 2014-15, and it seemed like the end of the road for Bill Herrion, whose 8th and 9th seasons in charge were a combined 15-44 (9-23 America East) leading into that season.
But, with what turned out to be a pivotal and prescient foray to Texas for recruiting began to pay dividends, and as UMBC showed up for Senior Night Saturday, New Hampshire had long since clinched his third straight winning season, and with a 94-90 double-overtime win, had won 10 America East games in each of those campaigns. In a league dominated by Vermont, Stony Brook, and Albany, the name New Hampshire – long a doormat – now has to be in the same conversation, and should at least through next season.
“I think it’s going to be fun. It’s fun for both teams. It’s obviously very competitive,” Odom said. “You saw how they reacted after the game, it was a hard fought game and they were happy to win and our guys were disappointed to lose, but it was the same way at our place. You kind of let that drive you. It’s college basketball. It’s supposed to be an emotional game, and obviously you have to keep those in check, but that’s how it’s supposed to be. The crowd was great today.”
We will see you on Wednesday (7:30 PM) Wildcat Nation! #AEPlayoffs #GoUNH pic.twitter.com/QE0gFSzrgS
— UNH Men's Basketball (@UNHMBB) February 25, 2017
Perhaps most importantly, Lundholm Gym was just about full Saturday, something that was reserved for school functions and rallies in the past, not basketball games. As recently as last season, New Hampshire averaged 788 fans per game, and the occasion was not lost on Herrion, who likely dreamed of such a day, but never knew if he would actually see it.
“This is as big a win as we’ve had here in my 12 years, and I think more from the standpoint of knowing what was at stake, trying to get a home game in the conference tournament,” Herrion said. “They’re really good. It was great to win in front of a really big crowd. Obviously, we’ve been moving this program forward in the last couple of years and when you finally get almost a full house, you have to take advantage of that. Hopefully, they keep coming back, they were awesome.”
That was absolutely incredible. Thank you @UNHMBB for the amazing performance. Wednesday can't come soon enough #IBelieveInUNH pic.twitter.com/EDl8tUzm5A
— 'Cat Pack Captains (@CatPackCaptains) February 25, 2017
He’ll get another one Wednesday night, as the double-overtime win means the Wildcats will host UMBC again as the No. 4 seed in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. The winner likely have to go to Burlington to take on undefeated Vermont in the semis and that will be a tall order. Regardless, while the CIT is ridiculed perhaps more than America East, the success and appearance of these two teams in any postseason should not be minimized. From where they’ve come from? Quite the achievement.
What else did we learn as record highs melted snow in Durham?:
- More overtimes
UMBC and New Hampshire (19-11, 10-6) have now played four overtimes in two contests after the first meeting in Maryland also went double overtime, which the Retrievers pulling that one out, 108-105. As much as it stinks that the same two teams will have to turn around and play a more important game four days later at the same venue, at least the teams split in their regular season meetings.
And, of course, such is life in one-bid leagues where the postseason has added weight. But, as was stated earlier, no matter what happens, it shouldn’t take away from the seasons that these two teams have had.
More oooooovertime. For the 2nd time this season, UMBC and New Hampshire will play double overtime: pic.twitter.com/Noz3mYerDR
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) February 25, 2017
“I don’t want to say everything goes out the window right now because the really hard thing is that on our level when you’re in a one-bid league, now it’s a three-game season,” Herrion said. “It kind of starts all over Wednesday night. You know have to try to put three one-game winning streaks one game at a time. As you just saw, it should be a heck of a basketball game Wednesday, too.”
What a play by @UNHMBB's John Ogwuche for the #AEHoops Block of the Night! pic.twitter.com/fZlebxM2gS
— America East (@AmericaEast) February 26, 2017
2) Underrated Tanner Leissner
Leissner is not a household name outside New Hampshire, but he is certainly one of the most valuable players in America East, averaging 19.0 points and 6.7 rebounds in conference play (one of the biggest reasons why New Hampshire is so good on the boards, 2nd nationally in defensive rebounding). Leissner was dominant Saturday with 30 points and has scored 66 in the two meetings this season against UMBC.
To New Hampshire’s credit, they played the overtimes without Leissner, who had fouled out, and prevailed anyway, behind Jordan Reed (Jaleen Smith had also fouled out) and John Ogwuche. It stands to reason Wednesday’s game will be close as well and Leissner will play a big part.
3) Entertainment value
It remains to be seen whether UMBC and Odom can sustain this season’s improvement, but it should be noted that the style change implemented will likely stay. The Retrievers lead the league in scoring offense, but are only third in efficiency (behind Vermont and Albany) because they play the fastest in the league by far (New Hampshire is actually second, their two matchups had a combined 204 possessions, buoyed by the overtimes, of course).
Opening up the offense has helped, as has K.J. Maura (a JUCO transfer from Puerto Rico by way of Florida) join the fray. But Joe Sherburne shot just 36.7% from three and is up to 46.6% and Will Darley is shooting 50.5% from deep in conference play because they surely work hard in the gym and at practice, but also because the open offense allows them a little more room to get shots off.
“They’re so good and talented on offense, they’re so hard to guard,” Herrion said.
Alas, UMBC went only 6-30 from outside the arc Saturday, with no one having more than one three (somehow it also finished with just 7 assists in 45 minutes of basketball, which is difficult to do). But even with a less than stellar offensive performance, they were obviously still in the game until the very end, which should give them some confidence for Wednesday.
“It was a fun basketball game to be a part of,” Odom said. “I thought our guys did fight, but we just didn’t play as clean a game as we needed to play in order to beat a really good team on the road.”