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.
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.
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.