'They had the best player on the floor' - Coaches break down why UMBC had traits to pull off historic upset

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County basketball team opened its new arena against Vermont in early February, and lost by 28 after the ribbon-cutting ceremony. UMBC lost to Army in December on a neutral floor and got throttled, 83-39, in a game at Albany in January. A quick peek at the Retrievers’ schedule left few hints that they’d be the team to seize the Holy Grail of college basketball upsets, ending the 135-game losing streak for No. 16 seeds against No. 1 seeds.

But after throttling No. 1 Virginia, 74-54, to solidify their place in college basketball lore on Friday night, the coaches who played UMBC this year told Yahoo Sports they’d seen signs that this upset was possible. Shock obviously reverberated through the league, but there were hints.

“I was stunned,” said Albany coach Will Brown. “But not because of how well UMBC played. I was stunned because of the respect I have for Virginia. The way they defend, they were not able to defend UMBC. I was surprised how many clean and open looks UMBC got.”

The coaches identified a few traits that translated to history in phone interviews late Friday. They pointed to the poise of 43-year-old head coach Ryan Odom, the talent of star guard Jairus Lyles and an offense that played relentlessly all season.

All the interviews began extolling Odom, who has gone 45-23 in two seasons at UMBC. That’s a remarkable accomplishment considering UMBC had won seven games the previous season and 20 games in the three previous years combined.

As a No. 16 seed, UMBC entered the 2018 NCAA tournament with its fair share of doubters. (AP)
As a No. 16 seed, UMBC entered the 2018 NCAA tournament with its fair share of doubters. (AP)

Odom is the son of former South Carolina coach Dave Odom, who coached 22 years at East Carolina, Wake Forest and South Carolina. Both are considered Southern gentlemen, known for genteel demeanors. (No coincidence that Ryan Odom’s name has been bandied around in the ECU search, and it’s likely to get louder.)

“Ryan is exactly what college basketball is nowadays,” Hartford coach John Gallagher said. “He’s a guy that represents what this game was meant to be about. There’s no better coaching job in the country than Ryan Odom has done the past two years.”

Odom’s team has adopted his hallmark poise. No one knows that better than the coaches at Vermont, who lost to UMBC in Burlington, Vermont, at the buzzer in the America East title game. Vermont twice led by nine in the final 10 minutes, but UMBC stayed together and chipped away until Lyles hit a buzzer beater to win the game. “They were a very resilient team,” Vermont associate head coach Kyle Cieplicki said. “We had multiple chances to pull away, but they have a guy who can get his own against anyone.”

All the coaches brought up Lyles, who had 28 points on 9-for-11 shooting against Virginia. Former Maine coach Bob Walsh said he was obviously surprised at the result, but noted that UMBC showed a penchant for confident offense. He added: “Look, they had the best player on the floor and that always helps.”

Lyles played for the fabled DeMatha Catholic High School program on the outskirts of the Washington D.C. area and was recruited by Virginia Tech, Seton Hall, Penn State, Wake Forest, Oklahoma State and VCU. He attended VCU for a year, transferred to Robert Morris for a semester before ending up at UMBC. He averaged 23 points per game during UMBC’s seven-win season in 2015-16 and then his coach, Aki Thomas, departed. Lyles could have transferred after the next year, when he scored 18.9 points per game for Odom’s 21-win team. He stuck around to make history, much to the joy of DeMatha coach Mike Jones. About five minutes after the upset, Jones got a call from Lyles’ mother, Carol Motley. “I can’t tell you the exact language she used,” Jones said. “But basically, she was like, ‘Wow, what’s going?’ She was that way after the conference tournament, but she’s on Cloud 29 now.

“She loves him so much and seen him go through the struggles of finding his way. I’m happy for him and her.”

The marriage between star player and rising coach has been a perfect one for both Odom and Lyles. Jones said that Odom’s temperament has grounded Lyles after his vagabond journey around college basketball.

Adds Gallagher, the Hartford coach: “Everyone in the coaching community says to you right away, ‘Ryan Odom was lucky to have him on his roster when he got the job. I’m quick to say, ‘Jairus Lyles is lucky to have Ryan Odom.’ ”

They’ll be indelibly linked in history, as 135 No. 16s had failed before UMBC made it happen on Friday night. In 2006, Brown’s No. 16 seed Albany team led No. 1 UConn by 12 with 11:30 to go. They ended up losing, 72-59, to the Huskies, and Brown has an appreciation for how authoritatively UMBC finished the job. “It’s really impressive,” Brown said. “The crowd gets into it, and the players know it has never been done and they start looking at the scoreboard. It’s hard to get them, once you get that lead, to stay calm and poised. They can get over-excited. These kids are smart.”

Brown added: “UMBC’s poise and composure and the fact that they stayed the course was impressive.”

Not bad for a team that lost at home to Vermont by 28 and by 44 to Albany in late January. Funny thing about making history: It sure does a nice job making people forget your flaws.

More March Madness coverage from Yahoo Sports:
UMBC shocks Virginia, first 16-seed ever to beat a No. 1
What is UMBC? Everything you need to know about the university
UMBC’s upset eliminated last perfect bracket in Yahoo Sports Tourney Pick’em
Where UMBC’s upset of Virginia ranks among all-time greatest upsets
Meet UMBC’s other hero, the man behind its famous Twitter account