For UMBC men's basketball, March Madness still lingers at summer camps

The question was ridiculous — “You’re famous?” — but Brandon Horvath, a decidedly nonfamous person, considered it anyway.

At the UMBC men’s basketball team’s day camp last month, small campers approached the rising sophomore forward from West River. He wore team gear, and he was tall, so they asked him whether he’d been in March Madness.

Technically, yes. He sat out the Retrievers’ momentous first-round NCAA tournament upset of No. 1 seed Virginia, but in their second-round loss to Kansas State, he’d grabbed a rebound. On national television. If being famous in 2018 is as simple as running a popular YouTube vlog or posting a viral tweet, was he not famous, too?

“It's like, 'I guess I am, really, if you know who we are,' ” Horvath (Southern) said, chuckling. “It's pretty crazy. Little kids and people know who we are. I laugh. It's just funny.”

Around him was proof of UMBC’s skyrocketing Q Rating. His coach, Ryan Odom, was earning nearly double his previous base salary, a reward for setting a school record for wins. In a few days, the No. 16 seed Retrievers’ 74-54 win over the Cavaliers would be nominated for “Best Moment” in the 2018 ESPY Awards. And there sure were a lot more kids in UMBC T-shirts running around the Retriever Activities Center’s basketball court than there used to be.

When Odom took over as coach in April 2016, there was no basketball-specific camp at the school to inherit, only an all-sports activity camp. That first summer, he estimated about 30 to 40 kids came for a week of instruction.

“Most of these kids are from right around here,” Odom said. “We want them to experience UMBC and all it has to offer and certainly experience men's basketball and be around our players. It's grown exponentially each year.”

Camp membership hasn’t had quite the growth spurt of, say, the @UMBCAthletics Twitter account (over 89,000 followers total, as of this week), but it’s still going strong. In the summer of 2017, after a 14-win improvement and UMBC’s first win in postseason history, about 60 to 70 kids came out.

This year, Odom got about 80 for last month’s first weeklong session, and as many as 150 might come out for this month’s second sesion.

“When the program gets better like that and they see the success that we've had, [parents] feel comfortable sending their kids to come learn how we play and to give them the fundamentals to one day be in the same situation as us,” graduated guard Jourdan Grant (Archbishop Spalding) said. “That's definitely the ideal goal for these kids at this age. It's always, 'I want to be an NBA basketball player,' 'I want to play in the NCAA tournament,' so it's good to see that their dreams can come true at any moment.”

But Grant won’t be around to help the Retrievers strive for a worthy sequel next season. Neither will graduated stars Jairus Lyles and K.J. Maura. There is enough talent to remain near the top of the America East Conference. But as for the willpower, well, that is not a question to be answered in the summertime.

Last season, the Retrievers worked “insanely hard,” Horvath said, to make it to the league final and beat top-seeded Vermont. Now they have to summon even more energy, an even deeper focus. How do you go about making “Rocky II” when fans still want to talk about how much of a thrill the original was?

“We'll never forget that moment, obviously,” Horvath said. “But our weight coach was probably the first person that was like, 'Yeah, we won, but that was three months ago, so who really cares?' He's like, ‘We need to work even harder, because obviously, we have a target on our back now. People know who we are, and people want to play us, and they want to beat us.’ So we've got to get ready for that.”

Odom was ready for the question, too. It was not the first time he has been asked about avoiding a post-March hangover, nor it will be the last. But at least the narrative is changing. For the first two decades of his coaching career, he was Dave Odom’s kid. For a weekend in March, he was the most popular coach in the country. Now he’s the coach trying to navigate a program past an unprecedented win with no road map, no directions, except those already taken.

“My message to our team is very simple: We're always going to have that moment, those that were part of that particular team,” he said. “It could never be taken away from us. But our goal now is to create new and exciting moments. Every team has a life of its own, and that life is now over. And now we've got a new life started.”

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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