Fresh off the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history, UMBC men's basketball put together a worthy follow-up act during the 2018-19 season. The Retrievers went 21-13 overall, 11-5 in the America East and made it to the conference title game, losing to Vermont.
How did UMBC do it despite losing guards Jairus Lyles, K.J. Maura and Jourdan Grant, all of whom were vital to the Retrievers' Cinderella story in March 2018? Defense. UMBC allowed just 64 points per game, second best in the nine-team America East, and the Retrievers' defensive efficiency was third in the league, according to kenpom.com, a college hoops analytics site.
That made up for the team's struggles on the offensive end. The Retrievers played at a methodical pace, were eighth in the conference in 3-point percentage (32.3 percent) and struggled to find interior scoring. But this year, the Retrievers are seeking more balance as they look to get back to the NCAA Tournament. How will they find more offense?
"Speed up the pace, pretty much," senior guard K.J. Jackson said. "Just play a little bit faster, get up and down the court. Shoot better. Get opportunities, take better shots and get guys open, share the ball well and just get guys open and just play a little bit faster."
If the Retrievers are to play faster, the effort will be led by Jackson (12.8 points per game last year), sophomore guard R.J. Eytle-Rock (5.1) and junior transfer guard Darnell Rogers, a Baltimore native and the son of Lake Clifton legend Shawnta Rogers.
Head coach Ryan Odom expects Darnell Rogers, who averaged 14 points at New Mexico Junior College last year, to be a "game-changer for us in a lot of ways." The 5-foot-2, 150-pound Rogers was drawn to UMBC because of his relationship with Odom -- he's known Odom since middle school -- and Odom's past success with undersized guards like Maura.
"This guy's tough. He's strong, he's hard to get around," Odom said of Rogers. "Guys aren't used to playing against a guy like him. He's a unique player. He shoots the ball very well and he's a competitor. I think he's going to bring that speed that we need, the changeup, a little bit faster with the ball and has played the point his whole life, has played with high-level players. We feel very fortunate to have him here with us."
UMBC marks Rogers' third college in as many years; he began his college career at Florida Gulf Coast in 2017-18. Rogers spent every summer in Baltimore until he was 8 or 9 years old while his father played professional basketball overseas; he then moved to Charlotte, N.C., later meeting Odom while shooting around at UNC Charlotte. Now, he's back home and ready to contribute for the Retrievers.
"We kind of want to play up-tempo this year, so just playing fast and defending, really," Rogers said of how he fits in. "Taking good shots, also -- getting my teammates involved, makzing the right plays at all times."
The backcourt of Jackson, Eytle-Rock and Rogers may also include sophomore L.J. Owens, who transferred from William & Mary in May. He's seeking a waiver to play this year rather than sit out. Owens averaged 6.9 points per game last year for the Tribe.
Forwards Arkel Lamar (9.3) and Brandon Horvath (9.1) are expected to take on big roles as the Retrievers try to mitigate the graduation of forward Joe Sherburne, the team's leading scorer a year ago and one of the best players in program history. Junior center Daniel Akin, who played just seven games last year due to a torn meniscus, is healthy and ready for the season, according to Odom, who also said senior center Max Curran's status is unclear due to a broken pinky suffered during the summer.
Odom added junior forward Dimitrije Spasojevic, a transfer from East Carolina, to the frontcourt during the offseason. Spasojevic, a native of Serbia, averaged 4.9 points for the Pirates the past two seasons. Odom described Spasojevic as a back-to-the-basket scorer.
Now, the challenge for Odom and his team is to find the balance they seek.
"The focus for us is not giving an inch on defense, getting better on defense -- because it wasn't like we were perfect -- and then moving the needle offensively as well and just trying to get a little bit better there," Odom said. "Certainly recruiting helps with that, player development helps with that and just their overall cohesiveness, chemistry, time spent in the gym together. I think all of those things are really, really important."
COPPIN STATE (2018-19 RECORD: 8-25 OVERALL; 7-9 MID-EASTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE)
In Juan Dixon's third season as head coach, Coppin State will have to overcome the loss of numerous key contributors, including guard Lamar Morgan (11.3 points per game) and forward Chad Andrews-Fulton (7.6). The Eagles return top scorer Dejuan Clayton, a redshirt junior out of Bowie, Md., who averaged 14.5 points and 3.8 assists last year.
A trio of sophomores -- wing Nigel Marshall, guard Ibn Williams and center Brendan Medley-Bacon -- will be asked to step up. Medley-Bacon is a 7-footer out of Archbishop Curley, while Marshall and Williams are New Jersey natives who played their senior season of high school ball at Bishop McNamara (Md.).
LOYOLA (2018-19 RECORD: 11-21 OVERALL; 7-11 PATRIOT LEAGUE)
No local player scored a breakthrough season last year quite like Andrew Kostecka, who developed into a first-team All-Patriot League performer in new head coach Tavaras Hardy's Princeton-style offense. Kostecka -- an athletic, do-it-all, 6-foot-4 wing -- averaged 21.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists last year, and Hardy thinks there's even more in the tank for his senior season.
"A lot of the things we asked Andrew to do last year, he's never been asked to do before and he was able to thrive in a lot of those instances," Hardy said. "... There are a lot of areas for him to improve in terms of just seeing the game, making decisions, being able to not only help himself but help other people. He's an unselfish kid, so I know he'll be able to take that next step with that this year."
Sophomore guard and Boys' Latin graduate Jaylin Andrews (6.6 points) also returns after a Patriot League all-rookie team campaign. Hardy is excited about the quartet of freshmen he brought in: Spanish forwards Golden Dike and Santi Aldama and guards Garren Davis and Cam Spencer, the brother of former Loyola lacrosse star Pat Spencer.
"We're excited about all four guys," Hardy said. "I think we really hit four home runs in terms of their abilities and what they're capable of and also fit and need for what we want to do."
MORGAN STATE (2018-19 RECORD: 9-21 OVERALL; 4-12 MID-EASTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE)
Todd Bozeman won 195 games as the Bears' head coach from 2006-2019, but his contract wasn't renewed after the 2018-19 season, which marked Morgan's sixth straight losing season. Morgan hired Kevin Broadus in May.
Broadus was the head coach at Binghamton from 2007-2009, but despite on-court success he resigned after an NCAA investigation revealed recruiting violations. After that, he worked under John Thompson III at Georgetown from 2011-2017 and under Mark Turgeon at Maryland from 2017-2019.
"I've learned the process. You've got to be patient with it. Not every day is going to be an exceptional day," Broadus said. "Like I always tell our guys, ‘You can have a bad day, but you can't have a bad effort day.' That's the thing that we're trying to get through, and I've learned, especially over the last few years, you may not go out every day and have a good day. But you've got to have a good effort day."
The Bears' top returners include senior guard Stanley Davis (12.5 points, 7.1 rebounds last year) and sophomore guards Sherwyn Devonish (10.7 points) and Isaiah Burke (9.3)
"I think he's going to have a breakout year on the offensive side and he's a special defender," Broadus said of Davis. "He's a really, really good defender. I think he'll have a breakout year on the defensive side as well."
MOUNT ST. MARY'S (2018-19 RECORD: 9-22 OVERALL; 6-12 NORTHEAST CONFERENCE)
Dan Engelstad took over as head coach last year after Jamion Christian, who had a successful tenure at The Mount from 2012-2018, moved on to Siena. The Mountaineers struggled in Engelstad's first year at the helm, but every player on the roster last season was a freshman or sophomore.
This year, the Mountaineers should reap the benefits of the experience they gained a season ago. Sophomore guard Vado Morse, a graduate of Bullis School (Md.), was named the Northeast Conference Rookie of the Year after averaging 14.7 points, 2.9 assists and 2.6 rebounds in 2018-19. He should once again lead the way for Mount St. Mary's.
(2018-19 RECORD: 12-19 OVERALL; 8-10 PATRIOT LEAGUE)
As Ed DeChellis enters his ninth year as Navy's head coach, he must replace the production of forward George Kiernan (12.4 points per game last year) and guard Hasan Abdullah (10.1), both of whom have graduated. Senior center Evan Wieck (8.8), junior guard Cam Davis (9.8) and sophomore guard John Carter Jr. (8.4) will all be expected to shoulder a heavier burden this year.
The last time Navy made the NCAA Tournament was 1997-98.
TOWSON (2018-19 RECORD: 10-22 OVERALL; 6-12 COLONIAL ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION)
Towson put together three straight winning seasons from 2015-2018, but head coach Pat Skerry was hit with the departure of several top contributors following the 2017-18 season. The 2018-19 season turned out to be a rebuilding year with some frustration sprinkled in; the Tigers lost nine games by six points or fewer.
"It starts with me. I couldn't get us over the hump in close games," Skerry said. "I thought our guys got better. I thought we were banged up a lot during the year. I thought we found a way to hang in games, but we couldn't win close games. ... We had a year that we hadn't experienced in awhile."
Skerry, however, struck gold with junior college transfer Brian Fobbs (17.5 points per game, 5.9 rebounds last year), who is entering his senior season. Skerry said Fobbs, listed at 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, focused on improving his diet and body during the offseason and should be even better this year in leading the way for the Tigers.
"He looks like he could play for the Ravens on Sunday," Skerry said. "He's really committed to eating right. His ball-handling and passing has gotten a lot better."
Skerry will also lean on returning seniors Tobias Howard (10.2 points), Nakye Sanders (8.3 points) and Dennis Tunstall (7.7 rebounds). University of San Diego transfer forward Juwan Gray will be eligible to play after sitting out last year.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of UMBC Athletic Communications; Craig Chase/Loyola Athletics; Byron McFadden/Morgan State Athletics