CATONSVILLE, Md. — Ryan Odom was nervous that morning last spring when Jairus Lyles and his mom, Carol Motley, came to see him in his office that overlooks the court at old RAC Arena at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
Odom had just finished his first season at UMBC. One year after finishing dead last in the America East Conference with an overall record of 7-25, the Retrievers had gone 21-13, finished fifth in the league with a 9-7 record and reached the semifinals of the CollegeInsider.com tournament.
For a program that had won a total of 41 games in the previous seven seasons, that represented massive progress. Lyles had been the linchpin, averaging nearly 19 points and 6.6 rebounds a game in addition to becoming a force on defense.
Now, Odom thought he might be losing him. “I had talked to Jairus and his mom about it late in the season,” he said Friday, sipping a cup of coffee in the UMBC student union. “I told them I wanted what was best for Jairus.” He smiled. “I also told them the reasons why staying here couldn’t possibly be a bad decision for him.”
Like many players who sit out a season, Lyles was a fourth-year player who was graduating with a year of eligibility left. That meant he could transfer as a graduate student and play right away. A number of big-time schools had let him know — not directly, of course, since that’s against the rules — that they’d be glad to have him.
Lyles graduated from DeMatha High in 2013, played — or more accurately, barely played — at VCU for a year, then transferred briefly to Robert Morris before finding a home close to home in January 2015. Now, two months away from a degree in psychology and sociology, the chance to chase the bright lights in a power conference was there if he wanted it.
“I never really wanted it though,” he said Friday. “I can’t say I didn’t think about it. But the job here wasn’t finished. I couldn’t imagine leaving my teammates and, to be honest, I thought about legacy. I feel like I’m going to leave here having made a mark. I couldn’t have done that someplace else in one season. I felt like if I left, I’d be letting people down. I wasn’t going to do that.”
As soon as Lyles delivered the news to Odom, his coach felt certain about two things: “We had a chance to be good this year and, Jairus was going to have a great senior season. It said a lot to me about his maturity.”
Odom has been right on both counts. Going into Sunday’s game against Albany, UMBC is 18-9 overall and 9-3 in the America East, in second place behind Vermont. Lyles has been the key brick in that wall.
“If you want to have a chance to beat them, you have to at least keep Lyles under control,” New Hampshire Coach Bill Herrion said. “He can go off on you at any moment.”
It didn’t start out that way. Lyles played 58 minutes as a VCU freshman, scoring 13 points, and knew that playing time was still going to be an issue a year later with Briante Weber and JeQuan Lewis returning and Jonathan Williams arriving. He transferred briefly to Robert Morris, decided it wasn’t the place for him before the season started, and began looking — again — for a place to land.
It wasn’t that easy.
“It’s not like a lot of schools are looking for midseason transfers,” Lyles said with a smile. “Especially when you’ve transferred twice.
UMBC was an exception. Coach Aki Thomas was fighting to save his job and, since Lyles hadn’t played or practiced at Robert Morris, he was eligible to play second semester. He scored a lot — 23 points per game — on a bad team. Thomas was fired at the end of the season and a month later, Athletic Director Tim Hall hired Odom, who at 41 was already a basketball lifer, having coached as an assistant at six Division I schools by the time he was 40.
Basketball was about all Odom had known since boyhood. His father, Dave, won 406 games as a college coach at East Carolina, Wake Forest (where he recruited Tim Duncan) and South Carolina. In the spring of 2015, Ryan landed his first job as a head coach at Lenoir-Rhyne. In one season there, he took the school to the final eight of the Division II tournament. That, and his pedigree, got Hall’s attention.
UMBC’s potential was what intrigued Odom. “I knew they’d been through some tough times,” said Odom, who always casts things in the most positive light possible. “But I knew they were building a new arena [which opened two weeks ago]; I knew it was an excellent recruiting area and I knew it had become a really good school. I saw plenty of potential.”
Odom’s not just tossing out platitudes when he talks about UMBC’s academics. Under Freeman Hrabowski III, who has been the school’s president for 26 years, UMBC now produces more graduates who go on to Ph.d’s or medical school degrees than any school in the country.
When Odom arrived, he knew exactly one thing about Lyles: “He could score. I needed more from him.”
What he needed was for Lyles to be less predictable, especially late in games when he tended to dominate the ball. Lyles, with a good deal of help from 5-foot-8 point guard K.J. Maura, has combined to form one of the better mid-major backcourts in the country the past two seasons.
Lyles has scored less — 20.9 points per game this winter — than he did pre-Odom but has become a much better-rounded player, far less inclined to take a bad shot, especially late. He’s also averaging 3.4 assists per game and two steals.
“And, he always takes the other team’s best player and works him,” Odom said. “He’s as low-maintenance as any kid I’ve ever coached. He listens, he’s a natural leader and I don’t think he’s missed a class since I got here. In fact, I don’t think he’s been late for a class.”
Lyles had a 4.0 grade-point average as a graduate student last semester and plans to play pro ball somewhere next year. He is fifth on UMBC’s all-time scoring list even though he’s played only 2½ seasons.
“If he’d left, he would have been just another good player at a big program who was there for one season and gone,” Odom said. “Here, he’ll leave this spring, but he’ll have a relationship with the place and the people here forever.”
Funny thing is, Lyles knew that all along.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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