UMBC one year later: 'It wasn't just our moment'

UMBC players celebrate during their historic win over Virginia in the first round of the 2018 NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Charlotte, N.C. (AP)
UMBC players celebrate during their historic win over Virginia in the first round of the 2018 NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Charlotte, N.C. (AP)

BALTIMORE – The 2017-18 UMBC Retrievers will live on in March highlight perpetuity, destined for endless cameos on trivia nights and, eventually, the obituaries of those who participated. Such are the circles of life for the Retrievers’ seminal accomplishment last March, when they became the first No. 16 seed in the history of the NCAA tournament to beat a No. 1 seed in 136 tries.

Coach Ryan Odom, the genteel 44-year-old architect of the most stunning upset in the history of the sport – No. 16 UMBC 74, No. 1 Virginia 54 – soon learned that UMBC’s moment necessitated sharing. When he’s approached about it, he has found, it’s the sporting version of a generational communal experience – like a moon landing, royal wedding or presidential passing – where everyone feels compelled to tell him where they were.

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“It wasn't just our moment, it was a lot folks’ moment. And it was their moment, too, because they'll remember where they were when it happened,” he said. “And with that comes a lot of responsibility to, you know, honor it the right way.”

Soon after UMBC went from an unknown alphabet soup in the athletic world to a household name, a fascinating question lingered. When you’ve made history without really knowing you were chasing it, how do you set about attempting to do it again?

Things have gone just fine this season at UMBC, which went a solid 19-12 and 11-5 in conference play and earned a No. 3 seed in the America East Tournament. The Retrievers host No. 6 Albany on Saturday, a game that recognizes the duality of the opportunity to replicate their magic yet the fragility of finding themselves among the hundreds of anonymous opportunists looking to make their own March mark.

“Ryan’s handled it all tremendously well,” said UMBC athletic director Tim Hall. “He’s one of the most introspective individuals that I’ve ever been around. He’s appreciative of all the people who’ve helped him to where he’s gotten.”

UMBC was the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament last year when it won at top-seed Vermont on a Jairus Lyles buzzer-beater to clinch an automatic bid and kick off the sun-kissed run. The reality of this UMBC season is that if it pulls off another upset and wins the conference tournament, it would again be a No. 16 seed in the NCAAs.

Many of the familiar faces America got to know that magical night are gone. Lyles, who scored 28 against Virginia, is in the NBA’s G League with Salt Lake City, and diminutive guard K.J. Maura is bouncing around playing professional ball in his native Puerto Rico. Senior forward Joe Sherburne is back and UMBC’s leading scorer (14.3 ppg), as the team’s identity – through necessity and injuries to two starters – has shifted to a gritty defensive one. (And considering they are No. 307 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive ratings, they’ve needed it.)

“[Odom has] done a great job with this team,” said Stony Brook coach Jeff Boals. “They’re a little different, they’re a lot better defensively than the last two years. To maintain that consistency [in winning] has been really good.”

But the story at UMBC transcends their fine on-court follow-up. As the attention flooded the school – even its social media guru became famous and Ninja FaceTimed the players – UMBC the institution showed how well prepared it was for its moment.

Odom toured a Yahoo Sports reporter through a sparkling new $85 million Events Center, open for its first full school year, that glows with natural light and optimism. The building soft opened last year, but they’d yet to decorate the locker room, which meant the opportunity for a montage of celebration shots from the Virginia win.

A sign in the UMBC locker room features Jim Nantz's call of the Retrievers win over Virginia. (Yahoo Sports)
A sign in the UMBC locker room features Jim Nantz's call of the Retrievers win over Virginia. (Yahoo Sports)

The entire call of Jim Nantz is printed on the wall, starting with, “Sit back and watch history folks, the NCAA tournament has been turned upside down.”

The university, meanwhile, continued its ascent. The school has seen applications jump by 10 percent, but that fails to quantify the interest in attendance at junior days, alumni giving and just brand awareness. At a recent Giving Day, the school saw double the amount of people donating (more than 1,500) than last year at this time. The school’s president, Freeman A. Hrabowski, already well known in mathematics and university circles, got a bigger platform for a high-end academic school that competes with peer institutions like Cal Poly and Carnegie Mellon for students.

“It’s really helped galvanize the community,” said Greg Simmons, UMBC’s vice president for institutional advancement. “UMBC is a young place, still. There was a lack of name recognition before this event, and not only do people recognize the name and place now, they’ve really had a chance to see the pride that people take in this community.”

In terms of basketball, UMBC will live on forever but still hasn’t felt the effect in recruiting in real time. Odom hasn’t signed a single player since the historic win. In part, that was the plan. Odom had just two available scholarships and wanted to see the season play out and determine need. But there’s also a reality that McDonald’s All-Americans don’t start showing up to campus in Ubers after one great win.

“I think it puts us a category where we get involved now, but can you get em?” Odom said. “That's a different story. But I think it puts us in a really good position, especially given the circumstances. What we have now from a facilities standpoint, obviously the academics on campus, we've got a lot to sell, but it's not a layup.”

Odom said it’s nice not having to explain to kids what the letters stand for on recruiting calls. And if kids are choosing amid the low-major level, there’s usually a premium on winning tradition. UMBC managed to microwave that. But aside from the historic victory, Odom is one win from his third consecutive 20-win season in three years at the school. He’s 65-36 in three seasons after taking over a seven-win program in 2016.

But on Saturday, the one-and-done reality of low-major life begins anew. The Retrievers are, again, daring to dream. “It’ll be cool if we got back,” said Sherburne, the forward from Wisconsin who famously got tweeted by Aaron Rodgers. “We'd still be underdogs and everything, but it'd be cool to not really fly under the radar.”

That will no longer be an issue for UMBC, as it will forever be used as an annual March reminder of the power of the underdog. And in real time, both the program and university are happy to share that story with anyone who’ll listen. “We do have a little bit of a target, and that’s OK,” Odom said. “That’s where you want your program to be. You want to be in a position where if they beat you, it means something.”

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