Even as Vermont and UMBC distinguished themselves as the America East’s two best men’s basketball teams this season, set to play in Saturday’s tournament final, the gulf between the programs themselves seemed to widen. The Catamounts won their two meetings by a combined 43 points. Their winning streak in the all-time series ran to 23 games.
The matchup has seemed at times like a tech startup taking on a Fortune 500 company. Or an indie film against a Marvel Cinematic Universe tent pole. Or a 5-foot-8 guard versus a future NBA Rookie of the Year.
Which, actually, is exactly where Retrievers senior guard K.J. Maura found himself over five years ago — before he made his way to Las Vegas instead of Towson University, before he became the America East’s shortest-ever Defensive Player of the Year, before he helped lead the Retrievers to the brink of their first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade. Because Maura’s life story is nothing if not one of the reminders that David still can beat Goliath, why not start with the time he benched Andrew Wiggins?
It was Dec. 15, 2012, and Wiggins’ Huntington Prep Academy was playing Maura’s Arlington Country Day School in Kentucky’s Boyd County Roundball Classic. Wiggins was the No. 1 senior prospect in the country, a future No. 1 overall draft pick mulling offers from Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina; Maura was a shy junior who arrived at the Jacksonville, Fla., school that fall “iPhone-thin,” former assistant coach Patrice Days recalled.
At one point early in the game, Maura switched onto Wiggins, who, standing a foot taller, took Maura into the post. “Yeah, he tried to post me up,” Maura recalled. Maura drew a charge. Then he took another. Wiggins finished the first half with three fouls, and on the bench.
“That was a signature deal for him,” Days said of the game, an eventual ACD loss but a moment of validation in Maura’s unlikely journey to American basketball.
Maura started playing organized basketball in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at age 5 or 6, encouraged by his father, Melvin, a big Los Angeles Lakers fan. The more basketball they watched together, the more Maura loved the sport. And the more Maura watched of Steve Nash, the more he loved the way the game could be played.
From the time he could log on to a computer, Maura was devouring Nash highlights online. When the NBA’s Most Valuable Player race pitted his playing idol against family allegiances (the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant) in the mid-2000s, Team Nash won out.
“That's my hero, to be honest,” he said. “Best player ever. Best point guard ever, for me. I admired him a lot. I tried to copy or imitate him a little bit.”
Maura did a good enough imitation to earn a scholarship to a private school in Puerto Rico, to be invited to youth national team camps. But he soon felt he had bumped up against a glass ceiling — a very low glass ceiling. At the national team camps, Maura thrived in practice. But the coaches “had a standard,” he said. They wanted their point guards tall, 6 feet and above.
Maura said he sunk into a depression. Only after friends and family told him his hoop dreams were still possible did he resolve to chase them abroad, leaving his parents and young sister behind.
“Toughest decision of my life, by far,” Maura said. With the help of Art "Pilin" Alvarez, a coach and friend to Puerto Rican basketball legends such as J.J. Barea, Maura auditioned for local teams at a Miami camp. He was everything the coaches at ACD, a national powerhouse, had seen on film, a mighty mite in every way.
“My God, he's tiny,” Days recalled thinking. “But he makes all the right reads, and people can't stay in front of him.”
We always said that if K.J. was 6-1, 6-2, he'd probably be an NBA player.— Patrice Days, Maura's assistant coach at ACD and Abilene Christian
He was good enough to earn a scholarship to the school, and Maura entered what he remembers as “a different world, a different dimension,” one where the accents were funny and almost everyone they played was somebody.
On a team with more high-major talent than some states, against a national schedule that featured future multimillionaires such as Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid, Maura held his own. His junior season, he averaged a points-assists double double. The next year, ACD won a state championship.
With few Division I offers, Maura reunited with Days, then an assistant coach at Abilene Christian. Maura earned steady minutes off the bench as a freshman, but he was dismissed midway through the season for a violation of team rules. After a standout year at the College of Central Florida, where he earned junior-college All-America honors and led the country with 9.6 assists per game, Maura had options. After the season, he had decisions to make. One of them: Visit Towson and coach Pat Skerry or go to an all-star game in Las Vegas?
His parents would be in Vegas, and he hadn’t seen them in months. So, too, would college coaches, including UMBC’s new staff. Maura chose Vegas. A few weeks later, he chose the Retrievers.
“Was it a gamble?” coach Ryan Odom said of offering the 140-pound Maura. “Maybe, a little bit. … We already had guards set, and how could that upset the balance of the chemistry there and all that? I felt like our staff felt like his unselfishness would permeate the team and impact us in a positive way.”
It was a perfect pairing between overlooked player and underperforming program. If Maura’s high school opponents used to look at him as if he were, in his words, “barbecue chicken,” UMBC’s opponents probably saw the Retrievers as crab cakes. They certainly were easy to put down, with no more than nine wins in any of former coach Aki Thomas’ four seasons.
On offense, Odom wanted his team to swing the ball and attack defenses until they were stuck in “scramble,” a nice way of describing disarray. And there was usually no one on the floor quicker or smarter than Maura.
“It's like a wind-up toy,” Odom said. “He just keeps going, except he doesn't wear out. You don't have to wind him again.”
Added Days: “We always said that if K.J. was 6-1, 6-2, he'd probably be an NBA player.”
Earlier this season, Odom’s father, former Wake Forest and South Carolina coach Dave Odom, jokingly told journalist and TV commentator John Feinstein at a Retrievers practice that Ryan Odom had Muggsy Bogues on his team. (Dave Odom would’ve known, having watched the former Dunbar star play up close as a Virginia assistant coach in the mid-1980s.)
At first, Feinstein “poo-pooed” the comparison, the younger Odom said. A week and a half ago, though, Feinstein told him: “Your dad might’ve been right.”
Over his past six games, Maura is averaging 17.3 points, 5.3 assists, 1.5 steals and just 1.8 turnovers per game while shooting 53 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from deep. During Tuesday’s America East semifinal against Hartford, as the third-team all-conference selection sparked UMBC to a big lead early in the second half, fans chanted: “You can’t guard him.”
Pretty big recognition for a guy whose small frame still prompts classmates to ask him whether he really plays basketball.
“This is what we do, you know?” Maura said. “We don't go to the games thinking we're the underdogs no more.”