After completing the third-largest turnaround in NCAA Division I basketball last season and playing deep into the postseason under first-year head coach Ryan Odom, the UMBC men's basketball team has earned the respect of its peers.
But the Retrievers are not satisfied and know there's more work to be done.
"We finished fifth [in the America East Conference] last year, so we didn't accomplish all of our goals," Odom said. "And our guys know that and want to do a whole lot better than we did last year. We want to play our best basketball when we get to March and throughout the conference. It's a work in progress."
UMBC went from 7-25 the year before to 21-13 last season. Only Minnesota and UCLA had larger turnarounds in Division I basketball. The Retrievers' 21 victories were the second-most in the program's 30-year Division I history, and they became the fourth team in America East Conference history to advance to the semifinals of a national tournament, with three wins in the College Insider Tournament.
Last spring, Odom received the Joe B. Hall Award, given to the top first-year Division I coach, and with four starters back -- including preseason all-conference selection and America East returning scoring leader Jairus Lyles -- the America East coaches have picked UMBC to finish third.
For the Retrievers, who got off to the best start in their Division I history last year by going 7-1 and finished 9-7 in the conference, the recognition is nice but not what they ultimately want.
"Our expectations are always to win the America East," Lyles said. "That doesn't change year in and year out. Being picked third shows that people are respecting us more. That's not quite the level of respect we want yet, but we've got to earn it. It starts with the nonconference schedule, and then when conference play starts we've got to carry that over and keep playing hard and do what Coach says."
Lyles, a 6-foot-2 graduate student and captain who earned second-team All-America East honors the past two years, is the team's unquestioned leader. Ranked 17th on UMBC's all-time scoring list, he averaged 18.9 points last season and led the Retrievers in rebounding at 6.6, which was fourth in the league.
He is joined by four other veterans, including 5-foot-8 senior guard K.J. Maura (8.9 points, 4.3 assists, 1.8 steals), 6-foot-5 sophomore forward Arkel Lamar (4.8 points, 3.7 rebounds) and 6-foot-6 junior forward Joe Sherburne (10.9 points, 4.0 rebounds). Senior co-captain Jourdan Grant, who has made 53 career starts, is also back to provide leadership and depth after averaging 7.1 points.
"I don't think people will let us sneak up on them anymore," Grant said. "They definitely know who we are. We just have to prove to them that we can keep beating the same teams night in and night out and beat the teams that they don't think we can."
Coppin State (2016-17 record: 8-24; 7-9 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference)
Former University of Maryland star Juan Dixon takes over a Coppin State team that returns two starters and two reserves while welcoming nine newcomers. The Eagles are picked to finish 12th in this year's MEAC preseason poll.
Six-foot-2 sophomore guard Dejuan Clayton (12.4 points, 3.1 assists), a third-team preseason All-MEAC pick, and 6-foot-3 senior guard Tre' Thomas (9.8 points) return to lend starting experience to a team that lost four starters. Clayton scored in double figures 21 times last season and recorded 20 or more points on seven occasions.
Loyola (2016-17 record: 16-17; 8-10 Patriot League)
Greyhounds head coach G.G. Smith enters his fifth season with what he calls his "deepest team yet." Loyola returns 11 letterwinners who accounted for 76 percent of the team's scoring and 79 percent of its rebounds. Loyola is picked to finish sixth by Patriot League coaches.
Senior preseason All-Patriot League selection Andre Walker enters the season with 1,225 career points. The 6-foot guard is the team's returning leader in scoring (14.9), assists (3.9), 3-pointers made (82) and free-throw percentage (.863).
Also back is 6-foot-8 forward Cam Gregory, whose 63.8 field-goal percentage last season shattered Loyola's single-season mark.
Morgan State (2016-17 record: 14-16; 11-5 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference)
The Bears are the favorites to win the MEAC, according to the league's preseason poll, the fourth time they have been tabbed to finish first under head coach Todd Bozeman.
Morgan will be led by 6-foot-9 senior forward Phillip Carr (16.6 points, 9.6 rebounds), last season's MEAC Defensive Player of the Year and this year's conference Preseason Player of the Year. He is joined by first-team preseason All-MEAC pick, 6-foot-5 senior guard Tiwian Kendley, who led the conference in scoring at 21.0 points.
"It's the first time I can remember that I've had 10 guys returning," Bozeman said. "My top two guys are set in Tiwian and Phil. I'm excited about that, and I'm excited about the new guys coming in. It's a good group. Each team is different, but I think this team knows what they have."
Mount St. Mary's (2016-17 record: 20-16; 14-4 Northeast Conference)
After a magical ride that saw Mount St. Mary's capture the Northeast Conference title and defeat New Orleans in the NCAA First Four before falling to Villanova, the Mountaineers are picked to finish fourth in the NEC preseason poll.
Five-foot-5 senior guard Junior Robinson, a preseason All-NEC selection, leads head coach Jamion Christian's youthful roster, which features 12 freshmen. Robinson, a second-team All-NEC pick and an NEC All-Tournament selection last season, averaged 14.1 points while making almost 40 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Robinson is joined by 6-foot-8 senior forward Chris Wray and 6-foot-5 senior guard Greg Alexander as the Mount's most experienced players. Wray started 33 games, averaging 7.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.4 steals. Alexander started 13 times and averaged 7.7 points and 2.4 rebounds.
Navy (2016-17 record: 16-16; 10-8 Patriot League)
Navy returns four starters and its top five scorers from a group that advanced to the conference semifinals for the first time since 2001. The Midshipmen, picked third in the preseason Patriot League poll, have improved their conference win total in each of the past five years under head coach Ed DeChellis.
Shawn Anderson, a 6-foot-4 senior guard and preseason All-Patriot League pick, returns after averaging 12.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists. Senior guard Bryce Dulin (9.3 points), junior guard Hasan Abdullah (8.8 points) and senior forward Tom Lacey (7.6 points, 7.7 rebounds) round out the returning starters.
Towson (2016-17 record: 20-13; 11-7 Colonial Athletic Association)
The Tigers enter the season with an experienced and deep group that is coming off consecutive 20-win campaigns. Ten players return from a team that won 12 of its final 15 games a year ago, with eight of those players having played key roles.
Head coach Pat Skerry's Tigers are picked to finish second in the CAA preseason poll.
"This is the deepest and healthiest our roster has ever been from top to bottom," said Skerry, who is in his seventh season. "Not just in quantity but in terms of quality."
Senior guard Mike Morsell, a third-team All-Conference pick last season, led the Tigers in scoring at 13.6, reaching double figures 20 times. Senior guard Deshaun Morman, who ranked third in the CAA and led Towson in steals with 49, averaged 10.1 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists and was named to the CAA All-Defensive team.
Issue 239: November 2017