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UMBC shooting past expectations in Odom's first year

The UMBC basketball team had more wins through December than it did all of last season.

The UMBC men's basketball team has the nation's most accurate 3-point shooter, and he has a problem. It is very much a First World Problem. It bothers him just the same.

"Sometimes it's hard," Retrievers sophomore guard Joe Sherburne began to explain last week. And by hard, he meant Kardashian-trying-to-pick-an-outfit hard, not having-to-run-a-marathon hard. "You find yourself so wide open, you second-guess yourself, but you've got all my teammates and coaches yelling at me, 'You've got to shoot the ball,' when you're open. And sometimes it's hard to shoot all the time."

UMBC has become a case study in such cognitive dissonance this season. Take the micro level: Sherburne (54.7 percent) is one of just seven Division I players who through Sunday had made more 3-pointers than they had missed; last season, he ranked fourth on his team from beyond the arc (34.7 percent).

And the macro level: The Retrievers, the top scoring offense in the America East Conference (81.8 points per game), all hail their go-go pace of play. Only they're actually playing slower than last year's lower-scoring team.

Most disorienting, though, is the record: UMBC got its seventh win last season on Feb. 24. It got its eighth win this season on Dec. 19. Even after an 81-72 loss Friday to league favorite Vermont, the Retrievers (12-5, 3-1) are off to their best start in conference play since 2007-08, their only NCAA tournament season.

"Some people said, 'Hey, we already got more wins than last year,'" after the 120-111 double-overtime win over The Citadel, a program scoring record, Sherburne said. "But obviously, when that happens so early, we understand that there's a responsibility to get a lot more wins and that we can't just be satisfied with eight or 12. We want to get way more than that."

UMBC, which hosts Albany (9-9, 0-3) on Monday, was due for improvement this season. The Retrievers lost only one of their top contributors, senior forward Cody Joyce (Southern). Of course, they also lost their coach, Aki Thomas. The ramifications of that firing, after just 28 wins in four seasons, have proved more consequential.

In Ryan Odom, the Retrievers hired a coach whose origin and offense are also tough to reconcile. Dave Odom, Ryan's father and the longtime coach at Wake Forest, valued efficiency, but in a different way. Ryan compared the older Odom's teams to those of Tony Bennett at Virginia.

"Comfortable winning in the 60s," he said, "and they were good at it."

Ryan Odom was a ball boy at Virginia — where his father was an assistant in the 1980s — when the 3-point line was implemented. The court's new geography charted a different path for the younger Odom.

The son of the coach who mentored a college-age Tim Duncan preferred to play more like, well, not Duncan. Odom left Division III Hampden-Sydney as the school's all-time leader in treys. In 2015-16, his first full season as a head coach, Division II Lenoir-Rhyne led the nation in 3-pointers per game (12.4).

This season, UMBC is 15th in Division I (9.8 per game) and, more impressively, ninth overall in long-range accuracy (41.1 percent).

"Coach Odom wanted to up the pace and really hunt for open 3s," senior guard Will Darley (Dulaney) said.

The Retrievers do play faster than all but two America East teams, but maybe most impressive about their offense's 9.7-point-per-game bump from last season is that it is not due to an upped pace. UMBC's "adjusted tempo," according to analytics website kenpom.com, is 70.7 possessions per 40 minutes, a shade under the 2015-16 team's 70.8.

The Retrievers are simply smarter about how to live life in the fast lane and when to pull back the throttle. A practice staple at RAC Arena is what Odom calls the 15-second drill: Live ball, full court, five players a side, each trying to score in less than 15 seconds, then having to defend, over and over again.

The early returns were an eyesore. "The shots were really bad, no doubt," Odom said. But UMBC was learning Odom's offense, a system of playing without set plays. It has come to embrace read-and-react, probe-and-go, perfect for a roster that lists six of its seven leading minute-getters as either a guard or wing.

"The way we move the ball, it's hard for teams to keep up," junior guard and leading scorer Jairus Lyles said. "A lot of the time, they're just chasing the ball, and then somebody ends up getting a wide-open 3."

Team, coach and conference have begun to comprehend UMBC's new reality. The Retrievers, picked in the preseason to finish sixth by the league's nine coaches, are poised for an upper-half finish. Sherburne, a Wisconsin native and Green Bay Packers fanatic, has celebrated the occasional hot streak with a "Discount Double Check" motion, a la Aaron Rodgers.

He's also increasingly fluent in the coachspeak of Odom, a Durham, N.C., native. At the America East media day in October, Odom recalled, he saw Sherburne snickering with some teammates.

"And I'm like, 'Joe, what is so funny?' " the coach said. "And he said, 'Well, you know, you just say 'deal' a lot.' And I'm like: 'You know what? You're right. I do. Get used to it.' "

As with all those open 3-pointers, that might take some time.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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