How Ryan Odom and UMBC upset No. 1 Virginia
No. 1 seeds carry a 135-1 record in the opening round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Their single loss came earlier this year, when the University of Maryland Baltimore County shocked the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers, a team that most pundits expected to be the last one standing in San Antonio.
“We’re the 1” became a rallying cry across UMBC’s campus, as the school’s historic win proved there are no guarantees on the road to the Final Four. This summer, Winning Hoops spoke with Retrievers head coach Ryan Odom about his team’s NCAA Tournament performance and his coaching philosophy. Here is what he had to say.
WH: What was your blueprint for mentally preparing players before that matchup against No. 1 Virginia?
Odom: The biggest thing we try to do is simplify things. The more complicated you make it, kids get cloudy and they can’t play to the best of their abilities. We just tried simplifying the game plan to give ourselves a chance and, to be honest, hang in the game. That was the first thing.
I wanted to be real with our team about what they were facing. Obviously, they knew they were facing the No. 1 team in the country on both sides of the ball. It was a very daunting task, and there needed to be a very specific way we’d play just to hang in the game.
We just needed to get into a position where it could happen. It’s 40 minutes; there are no guarantees. The game is played between those lines, and there’s nowhere to hide. We tried to do what we could to stay in the game and let the chips fall where they may. And as we got into the game, we gained more confidence.
WH: You won that game by 20 points. Was there a moment before the final buzzer when the significance of the moment hit you?
Odom: The short answer is not really. As a coach, you never think you have it until the final horn. You’re always nervous because you see over the course of your career that no game is safe. We continued to encourage our guys to play confidently and play hard. You could see that (Virginia) started trapping and doing things they weren’t accustomed to doing because they were down.
Teams continue to attack when they’re down, and you have to keep scoring to maintain the differential. Our guys were able to do that.
WH: Each coach has their own philosophy on rest versus practice late in the season. What was yours heading into the tournament?
Odom: From about the last two or three games at the end of the regular season, we don’t do very much contact. The players know what we want, they know how play at that point. It’s more about offensively being in tune with one another, where we can get our shots and put players in the best position to score. Defensively, we talk through stuff in term of how we want to play certain things. I make sure that they’re fresh and they have fun, because that’s what it’s all about.
WH: You could have exited that win over Virginia with an emotional hangover, but you played Kansas State well in your second-round loss. How did you keep players focused?
Odom: I think we experienced that already with Vermont (UMBC, a double-digit underdog in the America East Conference tournament final, won on a 3-pointer in the closing seconds). That was way more emotional than what happened in the NCAA Tournament, which is crazy to say, but for us it was.
After Vermont, our team met the following Monday and we turned the page. I said we’re not talking about that game anymore. Right now, it’s trying to prepare and win the next game. That led us to Virginia, and we needed to do that again. Now it’s harder because you have so many people coming at us from a media standpoint, fans, people showing up at the hotel. I wanted them to have a balance of enjoying the moment but understanding there’s more out there for you if you’ll sacrifice celebrating and the pats on the back and focus on the task at hand.
WH: Have you noticed any differences in your program after the 2018 tournament, whether it be recruiting or fan interest?
Odom: Absolutely. I think we no longer have to explain who we are. The life of that season is over and that moment is over, but it’s never going to be taken away.
Our job now is going out and creating new and exciting moments for UMBC and this next team. Certainly, there are going to be a lot of pictures honoring that team, but that particular team’s life is over. That’s the great thing about college sports, is there’s another year right behind it and you try to attack it. Coach K said that’s what keeps him young, because there’s another player he has to try to help. That’s a great way of thinking about it.
WH: You spent more than 10 years as an assistant coach with five different programs. What did you learn about serving that role and how has it shaped the way you manage your own staff?
Odom: For me, I want all my assistants to dream of being in the head coaching position that I’m fortunate enough to be in with a college program. My job is no different than trying to help players get better — I want to help assistants to continue to chase their dreams and improve. The way you do that is have them involved with every aspect.
That doesn’t mean everyone can do everything. I have to prioritize, but at the same time, when it comes to basketball, they’re all involved in helping guys on and off the court. That’s really important for their development. If you say all I want you to do is recruit, you’re hampering their abilities to become a better coach. That’s very shortsighted, and that’s not giving back.
WH: Every coach seems to have their own “little thing” that they emphasize with players — deflections, diving for loose balls, hustle. What’s yours?
Odom: Unselfishness. That’s one word that describes our team. I don’t like if I see a player with the ball pass up a teammate who has a better shot. That doesn’t sit well with me, and my players know that.
Mental toughness is another one. There’s a lot of physicality in this game, but it’s a whole lot more mental than people realize. We try to coach that every day and put players in situations where they have to challenge themselves in practice and fight through things. If you’re not mentally tough and you’re bothered by one bad call or a guy scoring on you, or if you miss two open 3s and you’re scared to take the next one, you’re not going to win.