UMBC Basketball: A Journey to The American East Crown

TUCSON, AZ - NOVEMBER 12: Jairus Lyles
TUCSON, AZ - NOVEMBER 12: Jairus Lyles /

As UMBC basketball prepares for its first NCAA tournament game in a decade, let’s take a look back at how they got where they are.

As UMBC basketball prepares for its first March Madness game in a decade against top overall seed Virginia, let’s take a look back at this program’s emergence from years of unsuccessful campaigns.

UMBC had to play a perfect game to steal a victory in Vermont.  The Retrievers continued to fight back when it seemed like the Vermont Catamounts had gone on strong scoring runs and put the game away.

UMBC did not fold despite losing the first half lead in the second half and being down by nine points with 8:21 left to play.  The Retrievers continued to battle back and match every Vermont bucket.  UMBC would have the opportunity with one of the game’s final possessions.

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A tremendous three-pointer from graduate guard Jairus Lyles left 0.5 seconds remaining and a 65-62 lead at Patrick gym which proved to be the difference maker.  UMBC is now the America East Champion and has punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament.

UMBC men’s basketball has accomplished what many believed to be an improbable task in just two years ago as the coaching regime led by Aki Thomas had finished a 7-25 season.  This would be their seventh consecutive losing season of 20 losses or more and affirming itself as a last-place team.  It was more than evident that a regime change was necessary.

The journey for UMBC has not been easy since its last NCAA tournament appearance in 2007-2008.  The first UMBC team to reach the tournament went 24-9 and ended up playing against #2 seed Georgetown led by Roy Hibbert resulting in a 66-47 loss.  Since then, the team has struggled to develop momentum and chemistry in putting forth a high-quality level of basketball.

2008-2009: 15-17 – 5th place – America East Finalist

2009-2010: 4-26 – 8th place

2010-2011: 5-25 – 8th place (Tied)

2011-2012: 4-26 – 8th place

2012-2013: 8-23 – 7th place (Tied)

2013-2014: 9-21 – 6th place

2014-2015: 4-26 – 8th place (Tied)

2015-2016: 7-25 – 9th (Last place)

With the hiring of Ryan Odom and his coaching staff in April 2016, the 2016-2017 season would prove to be the core season to developing a winning culture at UMBC.

The Retrievers would go 21-13 and reach the semi-finals of the College Insider Tournament and have a televised game on FOX Sports 1, helping raise popularity and awareness with this growing program.

In this 2017-2018 season, UMBC was projected to finish third in the conference behind constant powerhouses Vermont and Albany.  UMBC would return the same team from the previous season except for small forward Will Darley who was integral in changing the culture the previous year.

Led by a trio of Senior guards in Jairus Lyles, KJ Maura, and Jourdan Grant, UMBC battled all season and finished 12-4 in conference play behind 15-1 powerhouse Vermont.  Vermont had gone 31-1 the past two seasons in conference play and had defeated UMBC 23 consecutive times.

UMBC as the second seed in the America East conference would win games against UMass-Lowell and Hartford at home, securing a final game to decide the champion in Vermont.

During my time as an undergraduate and graduate student at UMBC, times were tough as it seemed like there was no way to break out of the losing funk.  There were few of us dedicated fans in the bleachers keeping hope of a better season and results with promising recruits but did not lead to fruition.  A change was needed.

The construction of the UMBC event center along with a strong effort to develop a winning culture in basketball with coaching changes has led to this quick turnaround.  Ryan Odom and his staff have done an incredible job to build that culture and bring UMBC out of the dark ages.

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What is remarkable is that Odom has been able to accomplish this with a majority of the players that had experienced such harsh losing seasons.  As the only NCAA representative from the state of Maryland this year, there is a lot of retriever pride in the air.