Brandon Horvath is aware that the fate of the UMBC men’s basketball program this winter will depend largely on talent, opponents and maybe even a little bit of luck.
But in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic that has wreaked havoc on sports at the professional, college and amateur levels nationwide, Horvath, a 6-foot-10 senior forward, also suggested that the team that emerges as the America East Conference champion and the representative to the NCAA tournament might be the one that can best adjust on the fly.
“I think this whole year is going to be, who can adapt?” the West River resident and Southern graduate said Tuesday morning. “Different things are going to happen every day. We don’t even know if we’re going to be playing tomorrow or the next day. So we’ve just got to be able to adapt quick, and I think whoever can do that the best is going to have the best chance to win.”
A recent example of the need to be fluid surfaced over the weekend when the team was scheduled to play an intrasquad scrimmage with officials Saturday. But results of COVID-19 tests for the officials were not immediately available. So the scrimmage was delayed until Sunday when the results were negative.
“It’s an example of how we’ve got to be nimble, flexible with this thing,” coach Ryan Odom said. “There’s going to be things that we’re not used to and that we’re going to have to react to and adjust to and not get out of sorts about, and things are not going to be in our control that we’re going to have to be OK with and try to find a different way to get the same thing accomplished.”
As tenuous as the season might be, at least the Retrievers can take some assurance in knowing that they are regarded by their peers as one of the top teams in the America East, which revealed last week that UMBC was voted to finish second in the conference’s preseason poll. Vermont, which was poised to compete for the league tournament championship before the coronavirus canceled all college sports in March, was predicted to finish first.
It marked the second year in a row in which the Retrievers — who open the season at Georgetown on Nov. 25 — were voted to finish second in the conference. The consideration is a nice sign of respect, but 6-3, 225-pound junior guard R.J. Eytle-Rock said he and his teammates are not resting on that laurel.
“We could have been picked any number, to be honest with you. We’ve still got to go out there and prove it every night,” he said. “We know this conference is very tight. All the teams, I think from one to 10 now, any night could beat anyone. So to me, the preseason poll doesn’t really mean that much. I feel like we’ve still got to go out and do what we need to do.”
The admiration likely stems from UMBC returning seven of its top eight scorers and six of its top seven players in terms of minutes from last year’s squad that went 16-17 overall, finished the regular season tied for fourth in the America East with an 8-8 record and advanced to the tournament semifinals before getting bounced by the Catamounts. Four of the players are returning starters in Eytle-Rock (11.2 points and 3.3 assists per game), Horvath (11.0 points and 6.6 rebounds), junior guard L.J. Owens (9.5 points and 2.4 rebounds) and senior forward Daniel Akin (5.6 points and 5.0 rebounds).
The only starter missing is point guard K.J. Jackson, who averaged 13.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.7 steals in his senior year. Eytle-Rock, senior guard Darnell Rogers (14.0 points and 4.3 assists in only seven games before suffering a hamstring injury), Owens (Severn) and junior guard Keondre Kennedy (4.9 points and 2.8 rebounds) are expected to help with ball-handling responsibilities, but Eytle-Rock acknowledged the hole created by Jackson’s departure.
“That’s a tough one,” Eytle-Rock said. “He was our leader last year, he was our captain. He definitely did lead the way for us, but I feel like we’ve got a number of guys that know what to do, have been here before, and have a lot of experience. So I feel like we can all buy in, and I trust each and every one of us, especially the returners. I’m confident in them. We’ve got a lot of depth, and we’ve got a lot of experienced players.”
While defense has been a point of emphasis in previous seasons, the Retrievers are trying to branch out offensively by accelerating their pace of play and seeking to score more points in transition.
“The speed of it is not necessarily the No. 1 goal. Efficiency is the No. 1 goal,” Odom said. “We want to be a more efficient team, and part of being a more efficient team is playing with better pace. I can’t tell you that we’ve accomplished that at this point, but we’re working at it every day to become more efficient and faster. When you’re faster, you’re harder to guard, and teams can’t see things coming as quickly, and they have to adjust faster on defense. So for us, we want to put a little more pressure on the defense with playing a little bit faster.”
But Horvath said he does not anticipate the team straying too far from its defensive identity.
“We think we can score enough to win, but if you can’t score on us, then we have an advantage,” he said. “You’ll see us win games, 50-40, 60-50. We play real tough defense, and we hang our hat on it.”
The pandemic has not changed Odom too much — Eytle-Rock half-joked that his coach can still be tough on the players — but he insisted that he has come to appreciate his players' resolve in the face of the precariousness of the current environment.
“These guys have done a great job of coming to work every day and doing their best and focusing on their school,” Odom said. “It’s really eliminated a lot of the other things that can be distracting at times because there’s not much else they can do except focus on basketball, lifting, getting better, going to school. So it’s kind of eliminated a lot of the other stuff, which is good and bad because you want them to have a normal college experience that we all experienced. But at the same time, it’s not in the cards right now. So we have to come to grips with it, and I think our guys have done a great job with that. They’ve sacrificed. In order to make it happen, everybody’s got to sacrifice, and I think our guys are doing that right now.”
Eytle-Rock said the coronavirus has reshaped his and his teammates' perspectives.
“With the pandemic, we didn’t know what would happen,” he said. “We didn’t know that basketball could be taken away from us like an instant. So I just feel like it makes us want to be here even more and bring it every day and give 100 percent effort all the time.”
Since Ryan Odom took over as head coach in April 2016, UMBC has finished no lower than fourth in the America East. Here is a look at how the Retrievers have fared compared with their predicted finishes in the conference’s preseason polls:
Season; Preseason rank; Finish
2016-17; 6th; 2nd
2017-18; 3rd; 2nd
2018-19; 3rd; 3rd
2019-20; 2nd; Tie for 4th
2020-21; 2nd; TBD
Nov. 25, 4 p.m.