Over the last eight seasons, UMBC men’s basketball fans sat through a lot of bad basketball. Year by year, the team struggled to crack double digits in the win column, let alone a winning record. Many in the America East conference felt the same level of dread, predicting the Retrievers to finish sixth. As of Nov. 20, UMBC is the only team in the conference that is undefeated. It may just be four games into the season, but so far, this team is fun to watch.
After the Retrievers 93-85 victory over Kennesaw State University, the school is off to a 4-0 start, their best start since 2000-01. The Retrievers finished 18-11 that year, good enough for a third place in the old Northeast Conference.
The Retrievers began their brief two-game homestand on Wednesday with a 90-68 mauling of Delaware State University. UMBC held decisive advantages in field goal percentage, three-pointers and points in the paint.
“I think it’s the smoothest we’ve played offensively,” sophomore center Nolan Gerrity said on Wednesday. “Once we were able to score inside, it opened things on the perimeter.”
On Nov. 19, UMBC held off a 31 point effort from senior guard Kendrick Ray to defeat the Owls. For the second time this season, UMBC overcame a rough day shooting the three (25 percent) by attacking the rim (50-30 points in the paint) and getting to the foul line (21-30 FT’s). UMBC trailed Kennesaw State for a good portion of the first half, but ultimately outscored the Owls 57-47 after intermission.
Junior Jairus Lyles continued to show why the America East Conference (AEC) named him to their preseason all-conference first team. Lyles led the team with 24 points coming off the bench against Delaware State. In his return to the starting lineup against Kennesaw State, Lyles scored 29 points on 11-19 shooting. In addition, Lyles recorded three rebounds, three assists and two steals.
The Virginia Commonwealth Universty transfer ranks 26th in the country in points per game (23.5) as of Nov. 19. Additionally, Lyles has an efficient .547/.421/.727 shooting line and a player efficiency rating (PER) of 33 (15 is average). Lyles also leads the team in assists per game (3.8).
Aside from Lyles, UMBC has three other players averaging double figures in scoring. Fellow transfer guard, K.J. Maura, averages 13 points per game while shooting 50 percent from deep. The San Juan, Puerto Rico native is also averaging three assists per game and plays with great pace and control. In his home debut against Delaware State, Maura finished with 19 points, 6 assists and two steals.
Senior forward Will Darley averages 13.5 points per game. Darley is shooting 50 percent from three-point range this season, stretching opposing defenses and giving the guards room to attack the tin. Sophomore forward Joe Sherburne averages 10.8 PPG with a .457/.333/.667 shooting line. The UMBC bench has been impressive as well. In particular, freshmen Arkel Lamar (8.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG), Mark Curran (3.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG) and junior guard Jourdan Grant (6.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG).
As a team, the Retrievers are lighting up the scoreboard. The offense does an excellent job feeding off the home fans. UMBC’s three highest scoring performances all came at home. As of Nov. 19., the Retrievers rank 40th out of 347 Division I schools in points per game (88). UMBC also ranks 21st in the nation in points per 100 possessions (125.2). In regard to their efficiency, UMBC ranks 60th in field goal percentage (49.4) while shooting an impressive 37 percent from three-point range. On average, the Retrievers have a plus-16.3 margin of victory, good for 60th in the country.
The Retrievers defense looks much improved as well, even with a small sample size. They have given up less per game (71.8 PPG allowed compared to 80.6 last year). Their field goal percentage defense is better (43 percent compared to 50) as is the three point defense (33 percent compared to 38). Thus far, the biggest question mark has made the biggest statement.
The schedule gives the biggest area of skepticism. After all, UMBC isn’t beating up on national title contenders. Only one of the Retrievers opponents finished with a winning record last year. The school in question, Hood College, is a Division III program. On the other hand, UMBC is doing what good teams theoretically do, beat the teams they should.
The true test for the Retrievers comes in December prior to conference play. They begin a brief two-game road trip on Wednesday to face the Naval Academy and Dusquene University. Both teams blew out the Retrievers last season, holding them to 62 PPG. After another matchup against a Division III school, Messiah College, the schedule toughens up.
Road games against the University of Richmond, James Madison University, Mount Saint Mary’s University and Virginia Tech. Home games against The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina and rival Towson University. Of those teams, only The Citadel finished with a losing record. This year they’re off to a 3-1 start and scoring over 100 points a game, albeit against questionable competition. The Retrievers won’t be huge underdogs in any of those matchups, but we will find out how good they are.
In the meantime, enjoy this team right now while you can. They are playing good basketball and giving fans plenty to cheer about. “We understand it’s very early,” Odom said after the win over Delaware State. “We’re gonna learn a lot about ourselves during this non-conference season.”