Perhaps the rise of the UMBC basketball program can be explained best not by its 68-59 win at a veteran New Hampshire squad Sunday afternoon, but by the relative lack of shockwaves such a victory made around the rest of America East.
The Retrievers are in second place now after all, at 9-3, and – with all due apologies to Albany and Hartford – are probably Vermont’s biggest obstacle en route to another NCAA Tournament berth.
For those of us whose memories work better in the short-term, it’s easy to forget that just three seasons ago, UMBC was 4-26 with no wins higher than No. 316 in KenPom and Sunday’s win clinched the program’s second consecutive winning conference record for just the second time in school history. The other came in 2000-01 and 01-02 while a member of the NEC.
Ryan Odom might be doing so well that he might not be long for the Baltimore area at this rate, now 40-22 in two seasons (18-9 this year). How have they done it? Well, start with a guy in Jairus Lyles, who has been through some tough times after transferring from VCU, and bought into the program so much that he stayed as a graduate student this season rather than look for glory at a third school.
Jourdan Grant, the only player left from that 4-26 struggle, had 14 points, most of them down the stretch to seal the victory. Joe Sherburne is in his third season with UMBC and has improved every year, while 5’7” K.J. Maura – who couldn’t find his way onto the floor at Abilene Christian – has matured into one of the best players in America East, taking only three shots in 35 minutes Sunday, but posting eight assists against two turnovers.
While it is a senior-laden squad, UMBC has a brand new arena and with Odom in charge, appears to be able to make the permanent leap to the top half of the conference.
“They’re an older team, they’re seniors,” New Hampshire coach Bill Herrion said. “These guys are hungry, hungry guys that I think are chasing a championship after some tough years. They can kind of feel it and that’s how they’re playing. “Great guard play wins you games and they have really good guards.”
What else did we learn on Alumni Day at Lundholm Gym on Sunday?
1) New Hampshire is in trouble
Tanner Leissner, Iba Camara, and Jacoby Armstrong are all seniors, with Leissner (as of Sunday) now UNH’s all-time leading scorer and Camara their all-time leading rebounder (and closing in on 1,000 for his career). Yet at 6-6 in America East (10-16 overall) and a tough schedule remaining, this doesn’t appear to be the year they will make their NCAA Tournament debut.
Bill Herrion basically admitted he was close to out of answers after the game, except that he has not figured out his guards. Football player Evan Horn got the start Sunday, and while the Wildcats had only 10 turnovers, Horn and Jordan Reed finished with just one assist in 49 minutes. And if it doesn’t happen this season, who knows when it will in Durham.
“It’s been very frustrating and I have not felt comfortable, really all year, with our rotations and our substitution patterns in the backcourt,” Herrion said. “I can’t figure it out. At this time of the year, I’d like about an eight-man rotation, but it’s still, ‘Let’s try this guy. Let’s try that guy. That didn’t work, let’s try this.’ You just can’t have any continuity that way and we don’t.”
2) Doing things off the ball are important, too
Ryan Odom correctly identified defense as the place where his team needed to go to get to the next level. After all, UMBC was 347th two years ago. Even with the improvement to 21-13 last season, the Retrievers were only 297th (and sixth in America East). After holding New Hampshire to 0.92 ppp, UMBC is now under 1.00 ppp in conference play, good enough for fourth (and 216th nationally).
Odom points to Lyles as the most improved in that facet of the game. Even on a day where his shot was not worth him, he managed 18 points by getting to the rim, and – despite being in early foul trouble – was solid at the other end as well.
“They were backing off him a little, testing his jumper,” Odom said. “There were some good looks in there. He’s got 35 with teams playing him that way with him sticking 6 threes. He has a little hand injury he got in practice last week, but I’m not worried about his shot. He’ll be fine.
“I love our team,” Odom continued. “Where we’ve made the most strides is on defense. Offensively we were very good last year, but we worked all summer on a mentality that if we really wanted to win at a high level, we were going to have to defend. Our guys have taken on that challenge, with Jairus probably being the biggest shining example of that. He’s one of the best defenders in the league now in my opinion.”
3) Hopefully Leissner and Camara have a good finish
Leissner became New Hampshire’s all-time scorer midway through the first half, breaking a mark that Al McClain (1,851 points) set way back in 1984. Camara is currently the leading defensive rebounder in the nation and has 970 for his career, breaking a New Hampshire record that stood for nearly a half-century, and which would be on the way to an America East record if it weren’t for Jameel Warney, who checked in with 1,275 before his time at Stony Brook was done.
Both have had fantastic careers that have brought New Hampshire from the depths of America East to a conference contender. But if current trends continue, they may go out with a whimper and without even a home game in their final America East Tournament.
“Good teams find a way to win their conference games at home and we haven’t found a way to do that consistently and that’s disappointing,” Herrion said.