“Certainly when we reach out to folks now, high school coaches, AAU coaches, even prospects, I mean you don’t have to explain where you’re located,” said Odom, who’s entering his third season. “They know the history. They know what happened, and so that gets you in the door.”
Nearly eight months after the 74-54 South Region triumph in Charlotte transformed UMBC (25-11 last season) from afterthought to trailblazer, the program and the university in general continue to embrace and benefit from the national acclaim that accompanied the shocking result.
Apart from generating elevated interest from high school players, another significant dividend, Odom indicated, has been a bump in quality of nonconference opponents, with high majors calling to inquire about scheduling games.
Marquette did just that, and so UMBC is set to open the season Nov. 6 at Fiserv Forum, the new downtown arena in Milwaukee that also serves as the home for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. It will be the Golden Eagles’ inaugural regular season game at a 17,500-seat venue that cost a reported $524 million to build.
The Retrievers also play at Penn State, marking two games on their schedule against schools representing major college basketball’s power conferences.
“I think that’s a positive thing,” Odom said. “We want to challenge ourselves like we do every year. If we’re fortunate enough to make the NCAA tournament, we’re going play high-level teams. You’re going face a team like that in the first round.
“It’s going to test you and challenge you, so you don’t want that to be the first time you’ve ever seen them, seen players like that.”
Interest among prospective students in attending UMBC has received a bump as well, according to a spokeswoman for the school’s office of institutional advancement, citing an upswing in attendance at admissions events.
There was a 22 percent rise in attendance from last year, for example, at an event for high school juniors in April, and Retriever Visit Day in September had a 27 percent surge.
Those increases have university officials anticipating a spike in applications during this year’s admission cycle.
Back on the court, ticket sales for Retrievers games at the UMBC Event Center have been brisk, according to the school’s athletic department, on the heels of last season’s milestone. The 5,000-seat, $85 million arena officially opened early last year, but this season will be the first in which UMBC plays all of its home games there.
Coincidentally, the Retrievers’ inaugural game at the UMBC Event Center was Feb. 3 against Vermont, which they later beat in the America East tournament final, 65-62, on Jairus Lyles’s three-pointer in the closing seconds at Patrick Gym in Burlington, Vt.
That thriller delivered UMBC its first berth in the NCAA tournament since 2008, preceding a victory that captivated the college basketball world and provided instant celebrity not only for Odom and his players but also Zach Seidel, the school’s director of multimedia communications.
The UMBC athletics Twitter account claimed roughly 5,400 followers before the Retrievers dispatched Virginia. That number has grown to more than 87,000 following a whirlwind offseason that included the team being recognized on the floor of the state senate and attending a celebration at the governor’s mansion.
“It’s double-sided because, yeah, number one, everybody’s going to want to beat us,” UMBC graduate guard Joe Sherburne said. “I’m sure there are fans who say, ‘Oh, they’re playing UMBC. Let’s go watch that game.’
“On the other hand, I don’t think we’re expected to win as many games. We’re not like the favorites in the conference.”
The Retrievers are predicted to finish third in a preseason poll of America East coaches released Oct. 17. None of the coaches was allowed to vote for his school.
Sherburne is among three starters back on a team that includes six underclassmen. Forward Daniel Akin and guard-forward Arkel Lamar are the others.
“As far as turning the page, page turned,” Sherburne said. “We’ve had a lot of long practices to have time to turn it. It’s going well. The new guys are learning, and guys who didn’t play as much last year have been stepping up in practice.”
Gone are the Retrievers’ two most dynamic players from last season in Lyles (DeMatha) and point guard K.J. Maura. Lyles averaged a team-high 20.2 points per game as well as 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.1 steals and was named most outstanding player in the America East tournament.
The Silver Spring native had 28 points against the Cavaliers, making 9 of 11 shots, including 3 of 4 three-pointers.
Maura led UMBC in assists (5.0) and averaged 11.3 points. He played all 40 minutes against Virginia.
“I’d call it the new normal for us,” Odom said. “Certainly we’re still getting pulled in different directions at times, but for us, it’s about preparing for the season now. We’re always going to have that moment. I don’t want our guys to ever, the ones that were on the team at the time, shy away from that.
“You should be proud of what happened, but our goal now is to go out and try and create new and exciting moments.”