CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Congratulations. Pack your bags. You came, you did it, and that’s all. Thanks.
You can go now.
Would anyone dare say that to UMBC at this juncture? Now that the Retrievers accomplished the unthinkable — defeating No. 1 seed Virginia in Charlotte on Friday in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — who would argue their worth is spent?
No one. Not hardly. And so the 16th-seeded Retrievers, who now must face No. 9 seed Kansas State on Sunday, will adopt no other mindset.
They will not wilt under the national spotlight, bright as it might be with a prime-time television spot. The players will not lose focus, even with the social media wave that has endured long after the final buzzer sounded.
Coach Ryan Odom will not let them. That attitude is what brought UMBC here in the first place, right?
Why fix something that ain’t broke?
“We've got to encourage our guys, and I already have, to kind of turn the page,” Odom said Saturday. “We've got to focus here. The biggest thing is, do you want to be done now or do you want to try to put your best foot forward and continue on?”
Clearly the latter. There of course were the same questions posited to UMBC that are asked of every Cinderella team – aren’t you satisfied with what you’ve already accomplished? – but this time was different.
There have been upsets before.
But there was never this before.
“When you see SportsCenter talking about other events and comparing the game yesterday to other historic [upsets] in sports, it's pretty special,” Odom said. “It really is.”
Odom arrived on campus last season after brief stints with Charlotte — ironic, huh? — and Lenoir-Rhyne, and immediately brought with him the relentlessness that today defines his team. The son of longtime Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, he was raised as much in a basketball gym as in any normal home. It was there Odom was baptized, taught about family and faith and all the things that matter in life.
And basketball, too.
“Since [Coach] touched campus, he told us we're not underdogs — we step on the court to win a game,” UMBC point guard K.J. Maura said. “He brings a winning mentality to our team.”
That’s very nice. But … doesn't it almost sound a bit too far-fetched, just a little too optimistic? After all, an upset is one thing. Making a legitimate NCAA tournament run is another altogether.
But in the eyes of the Retrievers, they have the requisite pieces.
They have Maura, he of the quick hands and dribble penetration against the Cavaliers. Junior Joe Sherburne, the 3-point cannon from the corner of the court. Jairus Lyles, the locomotive powering everything, capable of dropping 28 points against the best defense in the country.
This isn’t some misguided confidence by the Retrievers. Its realizing that Virginia was the blueprint. The plan worked. Now it's time to duplicate it.
“We don't really want to get too high on ourselves,” Lyles said. “We made history, but I encourage my teammates to try to block out everything. We've got a tough team we have to play on Sunday. We're preparing for that right now.
“I think we'll be ready.”
That much is certain. Regardless of how the game plays out, whether UMBC can pull off another upset or not, it won’t have been because the team mishandled its sudden fame.
As for that tough team. Much like Virginia before it, Kansas State is a defensive-minded club with larger physical guards. In a sense, that’s a good thing for the Retrievers. They know how to beat a team of that ilk.
But what are the odds lightning strikes twice?
There isn’t much time to think about that. That’s how this tournament is designed. You play, and if you win, you're thrown right back into the fire. It’s meant to test your preparation, and your endurance, and your ability to keep calm.
And in UMBC’s case, to prove you’re not a fluke.
Not that any of that would ever be a problem.
“We're not satisfied. We go in tomorrow with the mentality we're going to win another game,” Maura said. “We’re never satisfied.”
Then a pause, and a wry smile.
“We’re hungry for more.”