It has been nearly three years since Virginia lost an NCAA Tournament game. You might remember... I mean you would almost be living under a rock if you don’t remember that Virginia lost to #16 seed UMBC by 20 in the biggest upset of the 21st century.
That UMBC team is all over the world now. They’ve made stops in Germany, Puerto Rico, Latvia, and Salt Lake City, to name a few. Head Coach Ryan Odom is still in Catonsville though, trying to not match, but build off that great win.
They made the conference championship game in 2019 but fell short against Vermont. Last season, they lost in the semifinals against the Catamounts. The two programs have really developed a rivalry since that 2018 conference championship game.
“Yeah, I mean they’re a championship program, without a doubt. They have a championship coach, and championship players as well,” Odom said about the Catamounts on his coaches show.
There have been two players on the Retrievers roster that have stuck around since that game in 2018, Brandon Horvath and Daniel Akin. Each has brought their unique skill to the Hilltop, making some history earlier this year. They were the first Retrievers to win back-to-back America East Player of the Year awards since the 2007-2008 season, when Cavell Johnson and Ray Barbosa took away those awards.
That UMBC team was the only Retriever team to ever win a regular season title in their America East tenure. This iteration of the Retrievers has a chance to finally bring the regular season title back home to UMBC, and this weekend’s series against Vermont looms large. Both teams are 9-3 in conference coming into this weekend. It’s not a stretch to say the regular season champion of the America East will be decided in Baltimore.
As mentioned earlier, Brandon Horvath has become the undivided leader of this current Retriever squad.
Back in 2018, he played sparingly with the Retrievers, but did not get a minute in the Virginia game. He has grown year in and year out. You would often see Coach Odom on the sidelines coaching him up a little tougher, pushing him to be that leader and a better team player just like UMBC legend Joe Sherburne. Horvath has been equal to the challenge set against him.
Heading into this season, he had three double-doubles against D-1 opponents in his three seasons. He began the season with two, one being against Big East foe Georgetown. He has continued with four more, including one in each of the past three series.
Horvath has been an offensive juggernaut for the Retrievers this year, along with making plenty of momentum-changing defensive plays. For the past two seasons, he had a mediocre offensive rating of 5.7. This season, he has upped that all the way to 9.4, in large part to his excellent 51% field goal shooting percentage.
If Horvath is ever in foul trouble, or the Retrievers want to go to another shooter down low, they have to very solid options in ECU transfer Dimitrije Spasojevic and the other player from that 2018 team, Daniel Akin.
Along with his top 300 defensive rating, Spasojevic has shot a stellar 53% from the field. He is not a player that you want to post up, as he has one of the most killer hook shots in the country. The dude is also just such a strong dude, that owns his opponent in strength.
Daniel Akin started that Virginia game, but has had injury problems over the past couple of seasons. He has been known as more of a defensive replacement the past couple of years, but he has found his stride from the field of late.
This season, Akin has shot 60% from the field. The only season he shot better was during that tournament run.
Akin has always struggled from the free-throw line. This year, though, he has upped his free throw percentage by 14%, including a perfect day from the line against Stony Brook last time out. Even with the injury problems, the growth of Daniel Akin is undeniable.
The big men are one of many strengths for the Retrievers, but the stealer of the show is their star guard, Darnell Rogers.
Rogers is the smallest D-1 scholarship athlete ever, sitting at 5’2. His father was not much taller, but was named the 1999 Atlantic 10 player of the year at George Washington.
Darnell has grit that you could never imagine, running around the court, picking up rebounds like a spark plug. Against Delaware, he tallied eight of them. In his last four games, he’s also racked up double digit points.
He might get all of the spotlight because of his size, but his fellow guard RJ Eytle-Rock really deserves some as well. In his last nine games, RJ has scored double digits. During the semifinal loss against Vermont last season, he scored a career-high 31 points and was really the only reason why the Retrievers were in the game.
The kid from London has taken over the flow of the game, being ranked in the top 20 of 11 KenPom categories in the America East. He has gone from a kid who barely got any playing time in the first month of his career to an All America East talent, a story that reflects the greatest player in UMBC history, Jairus Lyles. Lyles barely got any playing time at VCU before transferring to UMBC and becoming a star. Eytle-Rock was an afterthought on offense early in his career. Now he has become the only thought, hitting everything when needed.
UMBC has also brought in loads of shooting depth from transfers, something they’ve struggled with during the past two seasons when injuries really plagued them. Keondre Kennedy would start on any other team in the league but has been an absolute stud since transferring from junior college in Louisiana. He is listed as a KenPom significant contributor, although only starting two games this season.
American transfer Jacob Boonyasith has been a constant from three this season when the Retrievers need a spark ignited. He was named to the Patriot League All Rookie team back in 2018-19.
William & Mary transfer LJ Owens has been a consistent leader for the Retrievers since heading back home to Baltimore. He transferred after Ryan Odom’s collegiate head coach, Tony Shaver, was let go in 2019.
If either Vermont or UMBC can come out of this series with a sweep, they will gain home-court advantage throughout the America East Playoffs. That’s enough of a reward in and of itself, as the America East is still (as of right now) deciding its automatic bid using the Playoffs. But banners fly forever, and winning the regular season title over your in-conference nemesis on your home floor is something that you dream about. The Retrievers have the pieces to make it happen. Now they just need to do it.