UMBC basketball returns to a ‘new normal’

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 16: Arkel Lamar #33 of the UMBC Retrievers reacts during their game against the Virginia Cavaliers during the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

CATONSVILLE, Md. — As a graduate senior and one of the more notable returning faces of the UMBC Retrievers basketball team, Joe Sherburne was the designated student at the recent Baltimore Basketball Media Day, held on his home floor.

Sherburne’s a fitting representative — grounded, experienced, a guy who knew what the program was like before the greatest upset in the history of college basketball.

So, Joe, are things different now? Are there lots of new faces sticking microphones in your face that weren’t here before?

“Yeah, you,” he smirked.

When addressing the historic upset, both Sherburne and head coach Ryan Odom would only speak of it in vague terms. Nobody would say “Virginia,” or “16 over 1.” It’s the moment everyone knows you’re here to ask about; as such it’s never actually called by name.

But it’s why I’m here, to see what’s changed since March. Surely it’s why UMBC was asked to host this very event, in its second year now, after starting at Towson last season. So how have things changed?

“The only main difference is when I go home, people want to ask me about it,” said Sherburne. “Then if I see them again, they don’t want to ask me about it anymore. So it’s just one time I see one person, I have to tell them. So we’re totally, I would say, on a new page.”

OK, sure, but are things back to normal? Does normal even exist anymore? Is it possible, after achieving the singular upset in the history of college basketball, for things ever to be normal again?

“I’d call it the new normal for us,” said Odom. “Certainly we’re still getting pulled in different directions at times, but for us it’s about preparing for the season now.”

That new normal means appreciating the history with which the four letters across the front of your jersey will always be synonymous, while understanding that they also now serve as a bull’s-eye for any and every opponent.

“There was certainly not the target there is now,” Odom said. “But we’re open about it. We talk about it. You have to bring your best each and every day. That’s just the price of admission. I don’t ever want them to feel tight about it. We’ve got to be who we are.”

There have been benefits, some more obvious than others. There was a time in college basketball that, coming off what UMBC did last year, no power conference school would want any piece of them. Why risk an embarrassing loss against a mid-major when trying to pad your pre-conference play win total? But with the emphasis on bolstering strength of schedule in 2018, the upset over Virginia meant the phone actually rang with more offers this offseason.

That’s how their opener at Marquette — a nationally televised tilt next Tuesday — came about.

It landed a trip to play Penn State just after Christmas. Of course, that doesn’t mean the big boys are coming to the hilltop anytime soon.

UMBC’s splash onto the national scene hasn’t meant an influx of highly-touted recruits. But it’s made the process easier, opened doors that may have previously been shut.

“Certainly when we reach out to folks now — high school coaches, AAU coaches, even prospects — you don’t have to explain where you’re located,” said Odom. “They know the history. They know what happened. So that gets you in the door.”

That’s not to say they haven’t reloaded after losing Jairus Lyles and K.J. Maura. Providence transfer Ricky Council II sat out last year, but will be an immediate contributor. Another K.J. — junior college transfer K.J. Jackson — set the school scoring record at Temple College (Texas). And freshman Jose Placer is fresh off a stint as captain of Team Puerto Rico in the FIBA U18 Americas Championships.

With Sherburne, Arkel Lamar, Nolan Gerrity and others back, the expectations remain high for another March appearance.

“Obviously I want to get back to the tournament — that was like the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Sherburne. “It’s not something where you say, ‘OK, I’ve done it once, I’m good now.’ It’s something where you’ve been there, and now you want it even more.”

That will be UMBC’s burden this year — to be more than the game that put them on the map.

“We’re always going to have that moment. I don’t want our guys — the ones that were on the team at the time — to shy away from that,” said Odom.

“You should be proud of what happened. But our goal now is to go out and create new and exciting moments.”

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