In a perfect storm of opportunity, chemistry and ambitious coaching, three NCAA Division I college basketball teams from Baltimore have raised the roof on expectations this season.
Inspired by three transfers and a big-time point guard, UMBC clinched at least a tie for the America East Conference regular-season title with an overtime win in Albany on Wednesday. The Retrievers are intent on bringing March Madness -- and their first Division I bid -- to Catonsville.
On the east side of town, coach Todd Bozeman's cultural revolution has lifted Morgan State from the dregs of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference to a first-place tie with Norfolk State. The chances of a historic first NCAA Division I berth are not lost on the Bears.
Then there's Loyola College. The Greyhounds have been there and done that -- earning an NCAA berth in 1994 -- but have gone through serious down time since then, and now coach Jimmy Patsos has brought them back. Monday's upset of Rider propelled Loyola into a four-way tie for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference lead.
With the college basketball season in the stretch, it's worth noting Baltimore rarely has one team in contention for an NCAA berth. This season, it could hit the trifecta.
"When the dream is big enough, the odds don't matter," said UMBC coach Randy Monroe, who could have been speaking for all three.
What were the odds that Bozeman could elevate the program at Morgan State in just two years? The MEAC is among the lower-ranked conferences in Division I, but the Bears are not the product of a weak conference. With Marquise Kately, Boubacar Coly and Jerrell Green, they have the look of a legitimate tournament team.
"We still have defensive lapses like we had last year, but we don't have as many of them," Bozeman said. "We have pretty good chemistry on the team, and I know guys are policing each other more; that's different. Those are signs you are turning the corner."
Patsos has been running for that corner for four years. After knocking off the top two teams in the MAAC in three days, he and the Greyhounds made the turn.
"We have as good a shot as anybody else," Patsos said of the 11-5 logjam with Rider, Siena and Niagara. "I'm happy because we established a rotation, and we're up to eight or nine guys. With three games in three days [in the conference tournament], we need that."
All three teams must win their conference tournaments to earn automatic NCAA bids. With two conference games left, the Greyhounds already have clinched a bye into the MAAC quarterfinals. To gain the top seed, they need help -- in particular, a Siena victory over Niagara next week.
Loyola (16-12, 11-5) likes a tie with Siena (it swept the Saints) but not with Niagara (got swept). After facing California-Davis tomorrow, the Greyhounds finish with Canisius (home) and Marist (away).
Starting freshman Brian Rudolph at point guard 13 games ago has made a big difference. The Greyhounds have gone 10-3.
UMBC (19-7, 11-2) can wrap up the first seed in the America East tomorrow with a victory at home against New Hampshire. The Retrievers have gone 5-0 without leading scorer Brian Hodges (ankle).
"People are getting more time, and they're taking advantage of that," point guard Jay Greene said about Hodges' absence. "We're becoming a stronger team."
Just as impressive: UMBC is 6-2 in conference games decided by four points or less. Much of that stems from the leadership of transfers Cavell Johnson, Darryl Proctor and Ray Barbosa.
"Without question, it gives us the confidence we need going into those [tournament] games," Monroe said. "It helps you from a psychological standpoint."
"Strangely enough, losing to FAMU is maybe a smack in the face our guys needed," he said.
Norfolk State, which holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Morgan, finishes the season with five straight road games. Morgan has big games left against Hampton (home) and Delaware State (road), and Bozeman said the Bears have learned their lesson.
"It's clear we have the capabilities to do something," he said.