With 15 losses, the UMBC men’s basketball team has already suffered the most setbacks in a season during Ryan Odom’s four-year tenure as coach. But the way K.J. Jackson looks at it, those defeats helped mold the team into what it is now.
“It’s taken us a little bit longer to understand how to win games,” the senior guard said Tuesday. “Though nobody wants to lose the number of games we’ve lost, I think us losing those games really helped guys understand what it takes to win games, that’s it’s not going to just happen because of what happened last year or the year before. I think this year’s team has been through a lot of adversity, and the payoff is showing.”
Jackson spoke the day before Wednesday night’s 76-74 loss to Binghamton, but the Retrievers (7-7 in the America East) have won five of their past six games and seven of their past 10 to emerge from a three-way tie for seventh place in the league to a three-way tie for fourth and a chance to host a conference tournament first-round game.
UMBC’s recent run — including a 66-64 win over league-leader Vermont on Saturday — might be considered startling after the team lost its first four conference games. John Feinstein, a reporter and columnist for The Washington Post who has served as a color analyst for Retrievers games aired on ESPN’s streaming service, said the team has made believers of doubters.
“It would have been very easy for everybody to just say, ‘OK, it’s not our year,’” he said. “Ryan’s certainly not worried about his job or anything, and most of the players are underclassmen and will get a chance to play next year. But they didn’t. They hung in there, they won some tough games when they weren’t playing that great, and now their confidence is built to the point where how much would you have bet on them going into Albany and Vermont last week and winning both games?”
If it seems as if UMBC reserves its best play for February and March, that is the objective, according to Odom. But the circumstances over the past three years are different.
The 2017-18 squad never slipped below .500 in the America East en route to capturing the conference tournament championship and pulling off a historic upset of overall No. 1 seed Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The 2018-19 team opened with a 1-2 mark in the conference before rattling off five straight wins and advancing to the tournament final before falling to Vermont, 66-49.
The current group of players has not been as fortunate — a plight exacerbated by season-ending injuries to junior point guard Darnell Rogers (hamstring) and senior forwards Max Curran (wrist) and Arkel Lamar (shoulder labrum). Also, Jackson sat out the first four games of the season after undergoing knee surgery in the offseason, sophomore guard R.J. Eytle-Rock missed 11 games because of a pair of lower-body injuries, and sophomore guard Keondre Kennedy played through an ankle tweak over the holiday break.
At one point, Odom said the team had only eight players available for practice, which was not enough for even five-on-five drills.
“We were just kind of managing and kind of getting through,” Odom said. “As we began to get healthier, the guys maintained a great attitude. They continued to believe in themselves, and we continued to challenge them to believe in themselves. The record was what it was, and we couldn’t worry about the record. We couldn’t go backwards and change anything. All we could do was focus on what’s next.”
Since that 0-4 start in the America East, the Retrievers have improved as a team and individuals. Jackson, junior forward Brandon Horvath and sophomore guard R.J. Eytle-Rock have raised their scoring averages to 16.0, 11.5 and 11.3 points per game, respectively, over the past 10 games after averaging 11.7, 10.1 and 8.5 in the first 19. Over the same span, Horvath and junior Daniel Akin have increased their rebounding averages to 9.5 and 6.1, respectively, after totaling 5.5 and 4.4.
Defense has also keyed the team’s spurt. After surrendering an average of 68.7 points in the first 19 games, UMBC has limited its past 10 opponents to 61.2 points per game.
“We would not see it on a consistent basis,” Odom said of the defensive effort. “I think we’re seeing that more now. You’re never going to play a perfect game, but they’re way more competitive and more consistent with their effort and their details than they were earlier in the season. Some of that has to do with being more connected and having more practice time and being able to work at it more.”
The team’s development, according to Feinstein, is an indicator of Odom’s abilities as a coach.
“If you look historically at the best coaches in their leagues, their teams get better not only as the season goes on, but from year to year,” Feinstein said. “That’s less true for the star coaches because there’s more one-and-done [players], but traditionally the guys were much better players as seniors than they were when they were recruited as freshmen, and that’s true of Ryan because he does get to keep kids until their seniors.”
Jackson echoed that sentiment, but Odom quickly shrugged it off.
“The players do it,” Odom said. “You have to have talent, and we have enough talent to be competitive in our league. We have a staff — so it’s never just me — pulling in the same direction, but the kids get it done. They do the work, they believe in themselves, and they pull for one another. They’re a true team.”
If the Retrievers can defeat Maine (7-20, 3-10) on Saturday and Stony Brook (18-10, 9-4) on Tuesday, they could strengthen their bid for a higher seed in the league tournament. Such a prospect is a tantalizing objective, but Jackson said he and his teammates aren’t concerning themselves with potential playoff seeding just yet.
“We’re not talking about the what-ifs,” he said. “We’re just focusing on what we have to focus on that’s right in front of our faces. That’s just something we’ve got to continue to lock in and just follow Coach Odom’s plan, and I think we’ll be all right.”
Saturday, 1 p.m.
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