In Ryan Odom's second year at UMBC, great expectations — and a good sweat, too

At UMBC men’s basketball practices, the toughest drill is a layup drill. Specifically, the Lakers drill, so named for Los Angeles’ freewheeling “Showtime” fast breaks of the 1980s, the era of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pat Riley.

“Literally, just nonstop sprinting,” is how Retrievers senior guard Jourdan Grant described the exercise last week, and he seemed to wince as he explained the particulars. The goal: In a group of three, run from one end of the court to the other in three passes and no dribbles, a layup punctuating each trip. Then come back just as fast, rotating positions in the group, calling out a teammate’s name with every pass, so that each stride is more depleting than the last.

If coach Ryan Odom is feeling “mean” that day, senior guard Jairus Lyles said — if the movements are imprecise or the one-footed layups are off two feet or shortcuts are taken — the cardio can go on for 10 minutes. These days, a good practice sees UMBC done in about three.

“We know what [Odom] wants us to do and we know how to do it now, so it's easier and we get it done quicker now,” Lyles said.

Added Grant (Archbishop Spalding): “It’s just about paying attention to the little things.”

Odom’s transformational first year in Catonsville was about establishing the big things, and now the Retrievers can let themselves dream about even bigger things. The team was picked to finish third in the America East Conference this season, as much a testament to UMBC’s potential as a sobering reminder of the Retrievers who have preceded them. None of the 14 previous UMBC teams in the league had ever been voted so high in the preseason poll, not even the 2007-08 squad that represents the program’s last connection to the NCAA tournament.

Success could be hard to define this year. Defending champion Vermont is the unanimous America East favorite — the Catamounts are the only league team ranked among the top 100 in Division I on analytics website kenpom.com, ahead of second-place Albany by 41 spots — and Odom acknowledged that besting last season’s 21-win mark might be a tough ask. Only that 2007-08 Retrievers team has ever had more.

So UMBC is running fast and shooting from deep again, sweating and preparing as it did before last season, when a March appearance in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament semifinals seemed like a first-year coach’s pipe dream.

“I don't want to beat their bodies up, for sure,” Odom said. “I want to make sure that they understand how hard they've got to play. Last year was last year. For all intents and purposes, it doesn't exist to us now. We've got to focus on the task at hand, and that's every practice.”

The Retrievers return four starters this season, led by Lyles, a preseason all-conference selection, and pledge to play with the same go-go pace that powered the America East’s top scoring attack. But with the graduation of stretch-4 Will Darley (Dulaney), Lyles said UMBC will look to drive and kick more and hope the results aren’t much different.

The defense, though — that can stand improvement. In all but two of the Retrievers’ 13 losses last season, opponents finished with more than 75 points.

“We can score on anybody,” Grant said. “But at the end of the day, we've got to get a stop to win and grab the rebound.”

It’s important to Odom that he’s no longer the only one who can deliver such a message. He joked that his veteran players “can kind of finish my sentences before I finish sometimes,” even if it’s “All right, go again” before another dreaded up-and-back in the Lakers drill. Coaches, maybe more than any other profession, appreciate being listened to.

But some of the best teams, he said, are player-coached.

“They understand kind of what I want,” Odom said. “So now all of a sudden, we've got older guys who can kind of tell the younger guys, 'Well, here's what he means about this,' or, 'Here's how we want to do this.' Whereas last year, I was having to teach all of them at the same time. And that's when you know you're beginning to have a program. That's what you want.”

At a glance: UMBC

Projected finish: Third of nine in America East Conference

Game to watch: Feb. 3 vs. Vermont. The Catamounts, who return four starters and are the unanimous preseason favorites in the America East, won all 19 of their games against league foes last season. Only two were close: the tournament final against Albany (56-53) and a mid-February trip to UMBC (77-74).

Best-case scenario: A second year under coach Ryan Odom boosts a beleaguered defense, transforming the high-scoring Retrievers into real contenders for their first America East crown in a decade.

Worst-case scenario: Conference teams come better prepared for UMBC’s pace-and-space offense, especially with the graduation of leading scorer Will Darley (Dulaney), and the Retrievers can’t escape the middle of the pack.

Did you know? Senior guard Jairus Lyles enters the season first in program history in scoring average (20.5 points per game), and it’s not close. Darryl Proctor, who averaged 17.5 points from 2007 to 2009, is second all time. Tony Thompson is 10th in program history — and nearly six points per game behind (14.6).

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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