Ryan Odom took over as the UMBC men's basketball head coach in April and gave his team a simple message -- they could be winners.
The problem was the Retrievers hadn't won for a while. UMBC captured the America East championship in 2007-08 and made it back to the conference finals the following year, winning 39 games during those two seasons. After that, UMBC won just 41 games throughout the next seven seasons.
However, Odom's early work appears to be paying off. UMBC already surpassed last year's five-victory total by Dec. 3. The Retrievers won their first four games this season and tied the school's best start in 30 years of NCAA Division I competition by going 6-1. This record matched the 2007-08 championship team's start and is a long way from last season's 7-25 mark or the 4-26 record from two years ago.
Odom said establishing a winning culture needs to happen on a daily basis. The team plays hard and practices the same way. He wants the Retrievers to gain confidence and both believe and expect to win games.
"The culture was not bad here," Odom said. "What we're trying establish is a winning culture now, [and] the guys have bought in so far. They're doing a nice job with it."
Coming off a rough season like last year, where the Retrievers played well on offense at times but suffered several close losses, Odom knew he'd have a new start, but he wanted the team to look forward and not think back.
"It's a blank canvas," Odom said. "We can make this thing whatever we want it to be. We attack it each day. We forget about the past and … some of the things that held them back a little bit, and we push forward, and we think about what's going to help us win today."
Senior guard Will Darley has experienced many of the tough times since coming to UMBC from Dulaney High School. He's played and lived through the losses.
However, Darley has already noticed how team confidence is growing in several ways.
"The change has brought a sense of new life into the program," Darley said. "The whole culture has seemed to just come up. I feel like we're headed in the right direction."
Guard K.J. Maura, a junior college transfer this season, said there are a number of younger, talented players who should help the team.
But Maura also likes the team's fast-paced, look-for-the-open-shot style. The plays are not designed only for one person. Instead, they're set up to find whoever's open, and whenever that happens, UMBC could shoot the ball in a few seconds or it might run the whole shot clock, but the Retrievers are finding open looks. They can turn a game into a track meet or run set plays.
The results were solid during the first seven games, as four Retrievers were averaging in double figures with seven scoring at least seven points per contest. Jairus Lyles (20.8 points per game) leads the way, followed by Darley (12.4), Joe Sherburne (11.7) and Maura (11.2).
Starting guard Rodney Elliott missed the first four games with a lower-body injury but returned and averaged 7.7 points and 4.0 assists during his first three contests.
"We are really unselfish," Maura said. "It doesn't matter who's hot. We're going to find the hot hand."
Former coach Aki Thomas had UMBC running a high-tempo offense the last few years, but the Retrievers were inconsistent at times. This year, the team's passing and ball movement are much better, a significant reason the Retrievers won six of their first seven.
When UMBC beat Division III Messiah Dec. 3, the 98-59 victory came about largely due to the record-setting 19 3-pointers the team made that afternoon, setting a school and America East Conference mark for 3-pointers in a game. The Retrievers repeatedly found plenty of wide-open shots from long distance, which delighted their coach.
Odom certainly understands coaching, as his father, Dave, was a long-time college basketball coach himself. The younger Odom came to UMBC after several stops as an assistant coach and two stints as a head coach. He served as the interim coach at UNC Charlotte (8-11 record) late in the 2014-15 season, before taking over the top spot at Division II Lenior-Rhyne (N.C.) last season and posting a 21-10 mark.
Then came the UMBC job in April 2016, where Odom set out to change things.
Odom wondered why the team shouldn't believe it could win? It had happened before. Why not make it happen again?
"We have a tremendous opportunity to improve the program," Odom said. "I don't really talk to them much about last year. I look forward as to what's next for us. It's going to take a special effort. It doesn't have to be extra special, but it's just got to be a daily work ethic, a daily togetherness in order to make it happen."
Issue 228: December 2016