(photo courtesy: UMBC Athletics)

A Stunning Win (And Other Thoughts)

I thought today would be the end. I had planned on doing a roundup of all the games the NYC Buckets coverage had played in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament and beyond and that would be it.

Then UMBC happened. The Retrievers are a great story. One we’ve followed through their past few seasons in America East. Thanks to our friends at So Much Sports Baltimore we were able to feature UMBC quite a bit as they advanced deep into the CIT and won 21 games in 2016-17. This season we saw Ryan Odom’s squad a few times.

Last night UMBC introduced itself to the nation. The Retrievers pulled off not just a monumental upset in becoming the first 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed; they did it in convincing fashion.

And they did it with the pieces we had watched grow up. Jairus Lyles, the fifth-year senior who decided to stay home; KJ Maura, the undersized feisty point guard from Puerto Rice; Jourdan Grant, the senior who endured a 4-26 freshman campaign; Arkel Lamar, and Joe Sherburne.

Lyles is a Washington, DC native who took a little bit of time to find his place in the college basketball world. From stops at VCU and Robert Morris, he’s been around. Lyles also had a chance to leave. But he stayed at UMBC for one more season, bucking the trend of constant one-year graduate up-transfers. His reward? Being the best player on the court for the most historic upset in NCAA Tournament history. He scored 28 points on 9-11 shooting, grabbed four boards and had three assists in 39 minutes. Lyles not only came back to UMBC, he made an indelible mark on a program, a conference, and a national tradition.

And so NYC Buckets isn’t done yet. The Retrievers play at 7:45 pm on Sunday night against Kansas State. We’ll be watching.

Note: We’ve loved occasionally dipping into the Big East coverage. But obviously Seton Hall isn’t our bread and butter coverage here at NYC Buckets. Still, we wish the Pirates the best of luck in their game against Kansas tonight.

Quick Thoughts On Other Postseason Games:

MAAC

NCAA Tournament: #2 Duke 89, #15 Iona 67

This wasn’t a vintage Iona team. The Gaels finished fourth in the MAAC during the regular season as the offense dropped to fourth in efficiency. It was the first time since the 2009-10 season that Tim Cluess’s squad wasn’t first in offensive efficiency during MAAC play. Iona has always relied on that offense to cover up its defensive deficiencies, and after a gritty MAAC Tournament run in Albany it was impossible to contain Duke. The Blue Devils shot 62% inside the arc and 43% beyond it as they blitz the Gaels midway through the first half and were never challenged again.

If Iona wants to keep this run going in New Rochelle they’ll have to find another big man. Graduate transfer TK Edogi put up solid numbers in one season in New Rochelle. The loss of Zach Lewis will also be a big one. But considering that EJ Crawford, Rickey McGill and Schadrac Casimir should all return, Iona will be in a solid position once again come 2018-19.

NIT: #3 Oregon 99, #6 Rider 86

Flying across the country on a few hours notice is never easy and it eventually caught up with the Broncs, who were outscored 38-21 in the fourth quarter. Rider shot just 6-22 (27%) from 3 in the loss.

This Broncs team arrived a year ahead of schedule for Kevin Baggett, as they won the league title with a roster full of talented sophomores and juniors. That leaves loads of potential, as players like Dimencio Vaughn, Stevie Jordan and Jordan Allen become upper classmen. A good thing to fix for next season? Free throw shooting. The Broncs shot just 60.8% from the line this season, second worst in the country. Considering how guard-oriented the attack is, that’s just inexcusable.

CIT: Eastern Michigan 83, Niagara 65

The Purple Eagles shot a miserble 3-22 from 3 and 26-74 (35%) overall from the floor in an 18-point road loss. The question is: Where does Niagara go from here? Chris Casey’s fifth season with the program was by far his most successful (it was the first time he was over .500 overall or in MAAC play), but it came on the backs of two extremely talented seniors in Khalil Dukes and Matt Scott. Will Casey find the right pieces to run his new found up-tempo attack? Or will it be back to the drawing board in upstate New York. After a strong season the Purple Eagles seem to be facing more questions than answers.

CBI: Jacksonville State 80, Canisius 78 (OT)

Malik Johnson had a chance to win the opening round home game for the Golden Griffs on a three-pointer with one second remaining, but it didn’t fall. The Griffs though had already benefitted from a three going down when breakout MAAC star Isaiah Reese hit a shot at the end of regulation to give Canisius’ season five extra minutes. It is the emergence of Reese during his second turn through the MAAC that should give Griffs fans some hope for the future. (Along with MAAC Rookie of the Year Takal Molson.) Reggie Witherspoon will need to figure out how to replace Jermaine Crumpton, but returns a number of other key pieces after a season that showed a ton of promise. In just his second season at the helm Witherspoon guided the Griffs into a tie for the MAAC regular season title at 15-3 and finished 21-12 overall. He’s shown an ability to coach strong, offensively minded basketball and in 2017-18 the defense began to come around. That’s what Canisius will need to continue to work on if it wants to compete for a league title again in 2018-19.

Ivy League

NCAA Tournament: #1 Kansas 76, #16 Penn

The pundits thought that maybe Penn would be the 16 seed that did what UMBC finally accomplished, stun a No. 1 seed. The Quakers gave it quite the run, but the Jayhawks turned out to be a little harder to handle than expected. Part of the misplaced optimism seemed to come from people thinking Penn’s three-point percentage defense was a repeatable skill. (It isn’t.) Steve Donahue’s defense does a good job of driving offenses off the three-point lineā€”and has a lot three-point attempt percentage as a result, but how well opponents shoot when they actually get a shot off is another matter. Kansas, a team that had been bombs away this season, only attempted 17 threes, but made seven (41%) in fending off the upset bid.

But the future is bright in Philadelphia. The Quakers have a strong core that should return for another run at an Ivy League title. Yes, Penn will need to replace Darnell Foreman and Caleb Wood, but it also returns Ryan Betley, AJ Brodeur and Antonio Woods along with a host of other players Donahue can use while tinkering with his lineups. A decade ago, a Donahue coached team swept through the Ivy League with a 14-0 record and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a 14 seed. Two years later Cornell made the Sweet 16. I’m not saying that will happen (the Ivy League is much more competitive now), but it’s obvious that the Quakers have a coach that knows what he’s doing in the Ancient 8.

NIT: #2 Marquette 67, #7 Harvard 60

The team that actually won the Ivy League regular season title (albeit with the same record as Penn) was shipped off to Milwaukee for the first round of the NIT. Playing without the injured Seth Towns, Harvard battled to the end, but shot just 42% from the field and committed 22 turnovers. The defense though was its usual stout self, holding Marquette to 0.97 points per possession. (Better than almost every Big East opponent did against the Golden Eagles.)

The big, athletic, highly-rated sophomore class that Tommy Amaker brought to Cambridge two seasons ago continues to pay dividends. The Crimson appear to be set for many more years of competitive Ivy League basketball. Towns is already one of, if not, the best players in the Ivy League. A healthy Bryce Aiken next to Chris Lewis, the suddenly emerging Christian Juzang and the defense of Justin Bassey should be enough to make another run at a title. Harvard couldn’t ask to be in a better spot moving forward.

America East

NIT: #3 Middle Tennessee 91, #6 Vermont 64

The flip side of UMBC’s late-second victory in the America East finals was Vermont being forced to take a trip to Murfreesboro, TN, somewhere nobody wants to play. (Just ask the Blue Raiders.) Vermont held tough for a half, but was blown out of the water in the third quarter. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end for John Becker’s squad and a senior class that put up 99 wins in green and white. Still, players like Trae Bell-Haynes, Payton Henson and Drew Urquhart can look back an undefeated regular and postseason run last season and excellent 15-1 run this season even while they persevered through challenges like the injury to Anthony Lamb.

The return of Lamb, plus the development of Ernie and Everett Duncan, will be super important if the Catamounts want to compete again next season in America East. But it’s unlikely that Becker’s squad will be as dominant moving forward. (Though 31-1 in back-to-back conference seasons would be a nearly unachievable bar for any team.)

CIT: San Diego 88, Hartford 72

Hartford’s reward for a resurgent 19-13 regular season was a trip across the country in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Such is life for mid-majors. The Hawks shot 45% from beyond the arc (9-20), but just 17-36 inside of it in a first round loss. No one saw this season coming for John Gallagher’s squad and, considering most of the key players are juniors, the administration has to be thinking about another run in 2018-19. Here’s hoping Hartford, which had won 19 games combined in the two prior seasons, keeps this momentum going.

NEC

CIT: UIC 84, Saint Francis U. 61

Malik Harmon was everything the NEC was all about. The fifth-year senior spent all of last season watching his teammates become the conference contender he had been waiting for since arriving in Loretto, PA. Then in 2017-18 he returned and played a crucial role off the bench. Along the way he stuck with a program hundreds of miles from his hometown in Queens, NY. Harmon didn’t score in 15 minutes against UIC, but he grabbed one rebound and dished out an assist.

SFU’s season ended at the hands of a strong defense from the Horizon League that managed to hold the Red Flash to just 28% shooting on two-point attempts. (That’s an astoundingly low figure.) The good news for Rob Krimmel is that basically his entire rotation should return for another run through the NEC. Jamaal King, one of the NEC’s most improved players, and Andre Woolford are juniors and Keith Braxton, Randall Gaskins and Deivydas Kuzavas are sophomores. If they all come back, then Saint Francis has more than enough to compete, even before Isaiah Blackmon tries to return from the knee injury that forced him to miss nearly all of 2017-18. It’s possible that SFU could end up with the most dangerous roster in the NEC next season.

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