Everything Comes Together For UMBC

Like many of Shaka Smart’s recruits after his Final Four run, Jairus Lyles came to VCU with many stars next to his name and national rankings not usually associated with mid-majors.

But the 2013-14 campaign was mostly frustrating for Lyles, as he scored only 13 points all season. Lyles decided – like many players – that he would like to have a chance to be on the court more than not, so he transferred to Robert Morris, joining up with what would have been an NEC powerhouse. After his first semester there, though, he missed home (Silver Spring, Md.) and he left that program without ever suiting up in a regular season game.

At that point, there weren’t many offers. Lyles wouldn’t be eligible until the second semester of 2015-16, which made it difficult for many to fit him in, especially because he hadn’t really played since high school. But Aki Thomas at UMBC was pretty desperate. Thomas had taken over just a day before practice started in 2012 when Randy Monroe abruptly resigned, and things were already tough in suburban Baltimore before he arrived.

Lyles was a success on the court, at least offensively. Once he became eligible, he averaged 23.0 points per game in his sophomore campaign. But UMBC was the fifth-worst team in the nation defensively and finished 7-25. It also marked the end for Thomas, who (put an a brutal spot) finished 28-95 in four seasons.

About the same time, a kid from Puerto Rico that looks at first glance like he belongs nowhere near a Division I basketball court, was trying his darnedest to do just that. K.J. Maura lists himself at 5-foot-8, but he’s probably a few inches shorter, and was told by most coaches in Puerto Rico he had no future with their youth national program because of it.

But Maura’s quickness and vision got him an offer from Abilene Christian, who was in the process of reclassifying to Division I. Maura played more than Lyles did as a freshman, but not much more, and eventually did not play the second half of the season after a violation of team rules. Maura ended up at junior college in Florida where he played the 2015-16 season and led the nation in assists. Still, at whatever his height and weight were, the Division I offers were few and far between.

About this time (March of 2016), Lenoir-Rhyne University was making a run in the Division II Tournament, after getting upset in the first round of the South Atlantic Conference Tournament. It won two games before falling to Lincoln Memorial. They were led by first-year coach Ryan Odom, who despite his pedigree (his father is Dave) and experience, could not seem to land a Division I head coaching gig. But although UMBC was not exactly a desirable spot, so (although his hire wasn’t popular with everyone) Odom was hired and set out to turn one of the nation’s worst programs.

He already had Lyles, which was a good start. Despite another coaching change, Lyles had already transferred twice and was happy being close to home. Finding eligible players for the next season in the spring is usually a lost cause at the Division I level, but Odom’s radar quickly honed in on an undersized guard like Maura, whom he knew could run his up-tempo offense.

And so that’s how the trio – with significant help from players like Jourdan Grant and Joe Sherburne (who also suffered through that 7-25 season with Lyles) – ended up at UMBC, which finished one of the nation’s great turnaround stories by winning 65-62 at Vermont Saturday morning. At 24-10, the Retrievers will make their second NCAA Tournament appearance, a decade after qualifying in 2008.

Everyone reading this by now has probably seen Lyles’ winning shot to upset the Catamounts, but there were many steps along the way to get there, many of them correct and purposeful, with fortune obviously played a role.

But Odom had a plan when he arrived at UMBC. He first needed to make his team believe that they could win games in a program where it just hadn’t happened in the recent past. He found as much material as he could from the 2008 America East champs and put it in his then-bare locker room. Yes, UMBC could compete with Vermont, Stony Brook, and Albany, programs that had dominated America East recently, so much so that going into Saturday’s America East final, Vermont had beaten UMBC 23 straight times dating back to that 2008 conference tournament.

“Or job was to recreate that (2008) moment, and how do you do it? You do it every day,” Odom said. “There’s no secret or magic potion to create a winner. You have to work at it. You have to earn the right to win. These kids did that. They listening to coaching. They’re high character kids off the court, good students. Most importantly, they were eager to compete to win and that’s what you saw today.”

On the court, Odom knew he had to get his team to play some defense. Lyles had helped UMBC become at least a serviceable offensive team after being one of the worst in the nation when Thomas took over, but they suffered at the other end, finishing 347th nationally in adjusted defense, dead last in America East, and therefore dead last in the final standings as well.

“These two guys and I’ll add Jourdan to that, they’ve led this team all year,” Odom said. “One game it might be K.J., the next game it might be Jairus, it could be Jourdan. From the day I stepped on campus, these guys have tried to win every day and I’m just so proud of them. They deserve this.”

Change is slow, but Odom and UMBC were up to sixth last season in conference play, and finished 9-7. Overall, they were 21-10, including a run to the CIT semifinals in the postseason, even though Lyles played a little less role in the offense (going from 34.5% of shots to 29.4%).

“We started talking about making a foundation last year, but this is more than a foundation, this is the base,” Maura said. “Thanks to these guys and the coaching staff for making this happen.”

But Odom had a problem of sorts. As a graduate with a year of eligibility remaining, Lyles could now transfer without sitting, and was desirable to a few BCS schools who could use him. But, as it turned out, there was never really a problem at all. Lyles was happy being near home, had a great relationship with people both inside and outside the basketball program at UMBC, and wanted to be a part of opening UMBC’s new Event Center, which finally saw its first game in January.

“This is why I came back right here. I wanted to win a championship,” Lyles said.

Once Lyles was on board, the rest of the pieces began to fall into place. UMBC struggled a bit in non-conference, but by the time conference play began, found its stride, finishing 12-4 and second behind Vermont both in the standings and in adjusted defense, led by Maura, who was a first-team All-Defensive Team selection in America East, and Lyles. There were still hiccups, like two lopsided losses to Vermont and another to Albany, but UMBC finished the regular season by holding Hartford to 0.82 ppp. In the America East quarterfinals, UMass Lowell scored 49 points on 1.35 ppp in the first half, but was held to 0.68 ppp in the second as the Retrievers stormed from behind to win going away.

In the semifinals, UMBC shut down Hartford again (0.86 ppp), then Saturday against the top America East offense of the KenPom era, the Retrievers completely shut Vermont down in the final minutes, holding the Catamounts without a field goal for the last 8:21 of the contest.

“They were the better team today and made the plays down the stretch,” Vermont coach John Becker said. “I thought at the ends of both halves, they did a great job. Obviously, Lyles makes the big shot, the game-winner, but we didn’t score a basket in the last eight and a half minutes, and for that, I wish I had done a better job to give the guys a better chance to succeed. But we tip our hats to UMBC, and they will represent our conference well in the NCAA Tournament.”

So while Lyles’ shot was the vision the nation saw, the transformation from one of the worst programs in the nation was one that was ongoing for the better part of two years. It involved plenty of good fortune, but also lots of hard work and changing of attitudes.

UMBC was not a first-choice destination for Lyles, Maura, or Odom. But basketball life brought them together. And together they will march on an improbable NCAA Tournament run.

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