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A Year After Magical Run, UMBC Men's Basketball Builds Defensive Identity

February 1, 2019
When guards Jairus Lyles, K.J. Maura and Jourdan Grant exhausted their eligibility for the UMBC men's basketball team last season, it meant 49.2 percent of the Retrievers' offense from a year ago wouldn't return for the 2018-19 season.

UMBC had the fourth-most efficient offense in the America East last year, according to KenPom.com, a college basketball analytics site. The Retrievers shot 38.7 percent from 3-point range as a team, and with Lyles and Maura in particular, they had individuals who could get their own shot and create for others.

The 2018-19 version is different; the Retrievers are on a five-game winning streak and sit in second place in the America East at 6-2 due to their defense. They've held opponents to 54.8 points per game during their winning streak, and one of those games went to overtime. 

"This year, it wasn't working out really on offense at first, so we really just had to start focusing on defense," senior forward Joe Sherburne said. "Last couple games, last five-game winning streak, we've gotten back in practice to just doing basic four-on-four shell and working on positioning. That's really helped us. We weren't really sure what was going to happen at the beginning of the year and then we found our identity a few games in."

Sherburne said the team began to realize what its identity had to be during its trip to the Bimini Jam in the Bahamas when it surrendered just 72 points in a double-overtime win against Air Force, 59 points in a win against High Point and 58 points in a loss to South Dakota. The theme that was cultivated during that November trip has continued all year with a few hiccups, like when Florida Gulf Coast hit 13 of 25 threes in a game UMBC lost by 23 points in December.

"We were just trying to figure out what we wanted to do or what kind of team we wanted to be," junior guard K.J. Jackson said. "Once we figured that out, I think everybody did a pretty good job of embracing that and just embracing our identity and the fact that we've just got to sit down and contain and guard people."

The Retrievers (14-9) are 113th in the country in defensive efficiency as of Feb. 1, according to KenPom, which is good for third in the conference. Guards R.J. Eytle-Rock, Jose Placer and Jackson possess the athleticism and desire to disrupt opposing ball-handlers in head coach Ryan Odom's man-to-man style. Forwards Arkel Lamar, Brandon Horvath and Sherburne have the length to bother shooters. Sam Schwietz and Nolan Gerrity are big-bodied, high-effort centers who don't allow easy baskets around the rim.

Odom has seen improvement on the defensive end throughout the season. Most recently, UMBC held Stony Brook to 30.9 percent shooting from the field during a 57-49 win Jan. 30, and the Retrievers held conference-leading Vermont to 61 points and 34 percent shooting in a 13-point win Jan. 23.

"I think what these guys understand now -- what they didn't understand [earlier] -- was a sense of urgency that you have to have in order to win," Odom said. "That means you've got to play like it's the last play of the game on every play. We have a very small margin for error. And when you play that way on every possession, chances are things kind of turn in your favor a little bit."

Without Lyles and Maura, Sherburne became UMBC's go-to scorer. He's averaging 14.5 points per game and shooting 41.8 percent from beyond the arc and 90.9 percent from the free throw line. Jackson has been the Retrievers' primary ball-handler and can get to the rim, but he's struggled to hit shots consistently; he's averaging 11.3 points on 38.6 percent shooting. Horvath and Lamar (9.7 points apiece) round out much of the offense.

UMBC has dealt with injuries that have forced Odom's hand with regard to his lineups; Odom said the Retrievers have had "several different teams" this year. Junior forward Max Curran, who was averaging 7.5 points per game, is out for the season after playing just 12 games. Sophomore center Daniel Akin, a defensive stalwart and a solid rebounder, played in seven games and started six before suffering a season-ending torn meniscus in his right knee during practice.

As such, Odom has experimented with small-ball lineups. Against Stony Brook Jan. 30, Odom settled on Jackson, Eytle-Rock, Sherburne, Lamar and Horvath as his crunch-time five, with the 6-foot-10, 200-pound Horvath acting as the nominal center. 

"It's been just a matter of trying to put the pieces together," Odom said, "and these guys have had open minds and been willing to do whatever we ask them to do throughout."

Roster turnover last offseason brought about a defensive identity, and injuries forced more shuffling. But the same goal -- winning the America East -- remains.

"Last year's team was amazing and what they did was obviously incredible. But this is a completely different team," said Jackson, who transferred in from Temple College in Texas this offseason. "We have a lot of returners, but we also have new people coming in that have to step up and do the things that we need to do in order achieve the goals that we got last year. So I think the important thing is that everybody stays hungry."

Photo Credit: Andrew Yourell