RALEIGH—When the UMBC Retrievers fetched themselves an America East Conference championship last Saturday by pouncing on Hartford 82-65, the Georgetown Hoyas probably didn’t cross any of their minds. In fact, they probably couldn’t see too far past the bottom of the net, which they filled up—shooting a conference championship game record 59.3 percent from the field—before cutting down. But today, the Hoyas would now seem to loom large as the first-ever NCAA tournament opponent for a program that’s only in its 21st year of Division I basketball. And maybe they do; you’d just never know it. Because watching them practice just a day before the biggest game in any of these players’ lives, they’ve got that air of calm intensity—broken up by the occasional joke, the occasional smile—that looks so good on a team that, if they play their best game, most say can still only hope to lose respectably. Not that they’re hearing that.
“No one gives you a chance, especially no one else being a 15-seed, but we believe in our team,” UMBC junior guard Jay Greene said. “No 15-seed has ever beaten a 2-seed that didn’t believe they could do it … We know we have a good team and we are not going to back down from Georgetown.”
But what, after all, do the Retrievers have to be nervous about? They’re the classic David, and not just on the bracket line. Their tallest starter, 6-9 sophomore forward Justin Fry, averaged 4 points a game this year, points that may be even harder to come by with 7-foot center Roy Hibbert taking up the prime paint real estate. Senior guards Ray Barbosa (16.9 points per game) and Brian Hodges (14.1 ppg) and junior forward Darryl Proctor (15.1 ppg) figure to provide more of the offense, and athletic senior forward Cavell Johnson (6.8 rebounds per game) will look to provide Patrick Ewing-style energy off the bench, but the team is really led by the 5-8, 165 lb. Greene (7.3 assists per game), who was the American East tournament’s most outstanding player and, along with Proctor, a first-team all-conference member. And they’ll all be under the direction of America East coach of the year Randy Monroe.
“We are obviously outsized with … Hibbert,” Johnson said. “We always take pride in our individual defense, but a big part of … guarding him is going to be team defense.”
“You get this late in the season and you know that defense is a stable key in winning the game,” Hodges added.
Whatever they give up in size, though, Coach Monroe feels his Retrievers can make up for around the perimeter.
“I’m confident in our guard play,” he said. “We have Jay Greene, who is the straw that stirs the drink for us. You have Ray Barbosa, who is a prolific scorer. Brian Hodges can flat-out score. These guys … are looking forward to competing against Georgetown.”
The Retrievers didn’t reveal too much about their style at today’s practice session, choosing mostly to run shooting drills during their 40-minute allotment. They did come out in a man-to-man defensive set during their brief scrimmage (most teams have opted to throw a zone at the Hoyas this year, with good reason), and Coach Monroe exhorted his players to run an up-tempo game on offense, but whether that translates into tomorrow’s strategy remains to be seen (the team averaged 70.1 points per game this year, compared to the Hoyas’ 69.7). For their part, the Hoyas did little more than weave and shooting drills during their practice session as well.
What was clear about UMBC, though, is something that a lot of commentators forget when looking at lopsided early-round match-ups: these guys are legit basketball players. If you leave them an open look, they’ll knock it down. If you throw a lazy pass, they’ll pick it off. And if the Hoyas aren’t focused early, this team is going to hang around, just like William & Mary did in Georgetown’s first game of the year, just like Rutgers did in Georgetown’s first Big East game, and just like Old Dominion did last year when they shocked Georgetown and its fans in the intimate confines of McDonough Arena.
“Once you get to this time of year, every team is good,” Georgetown Coach John Thompson III said. “Every team is well-coached. Every team has found out and figured out and knows how they can have success … The numbers next to our name, we let you guys [the media] talk about; this seed, that seed. They’re all good teams.”
On top of that, UMBC’s Brian Hodges has that little extra kick of motivation: he grew up playing against guys like Hibbert and Georgetown freshman guard Austin Freeman, all D.C. area locals.
“It means a lot because I grew up rooting for Georgetown,” he said. “They were the home team pretty much and they have always been the dominant team in the country. It’s a great rivalry.”
When asked how his teams stopped Hibbert growing up, Hodges replied, “I don’t think we did stop him to tell you the truth … He was a dominant force growing up, as well.”
Really, this isn’t really a game for Georgetown to win; it’s one to not lose. And yeah, they’ve got UMBC outsized and out-athleticized. And of course only four 2 seeds have ever lost to a 15. But it’s going to be a tone-setting game for Thompson’s gang out there, and they’ll want to make it look as easy as everyone says it’s supposed to be. The upstart Retrievers certainly aren’t going to do them any favors, and their minds clearly aren’t on losing respectably. If the Hoyas want to end up in San Antonio, they can’t forget to school these ‘dogs first.
“Yeah, we are ready for them,” Greene said. “We are proud to be here and we are ready to play.”