BALTIMORE — K.J. Jackson pulled on his jersey, tugging it up to his face to wipe away the sweat.
The junior guard was nearly an hour into a University of Maryland-Baltimore County basketball practice in early February, and he paused for a moment, looking up toward the ceiling of the UMBC Event Center, which opened just one year ago.
There, above him, dropping from the rafters, hung the team’s 2018 NCAA tournament banner, complete with the score that turned the program from a nearly anonymous abbreviation to a household name.
#16 UMBC 74, #1 Virginia 54
The banner hangs over the floor for every game and practice, the symbolism no more avoidable than the sweat sliding from Jackson’s forehead toward his eyes: This season is being played in the shadow cast by last year’s historic upset, the first by a No. 16 seed over a No. 1 seed.
“We’ve talked a lot to our team about not having a rear-view mirror and not looking too far forward,” coach Ryan Odom said this week as he prepared his team for the upcoming America East tournament. “‘What do we need to do right now?’ That’s what seems to have worked for our guys.”
The Virginia win raised the school’s national profile, and not just athletically. Undergraduate applications are on the rise and average SAT scores for admitted students are up at the small, public research university with about 14,000 students. UMBC is having more success raising money.
“If you think about what we were able to do, it put us on a platform for so many more people nationally and internationally to know what UMBC is all about,” said athletics director Tim Hall, who hired Odom three years ago. “That’s the power of sports.”
Since the offseason, Odom and all of UMBC’s athletic department worked to ensure that last year’s upset could be celebrated without it overshadowing this season’s work or what they believe is a bright future for the Retrievers’ program.
By no means do the Retrievers want to forget their shining moment. A huge image from that game’s opening tipoff is emblazoned on the wall in the lounge in the players’ locker room, and another is going up in the practice gym showing the Sports Illustrated collectible cover from the victory.
In his office, Odom has a shoe from that game signed by the entire team, a photograph of the starters huddling on the court just before tipoff and a copy of that same magazine cover.
The win over U.Va. paid dividends that stretched beyond the usual 15 minutes of fame and the knowledge that UMBC will forever be the answer to one of college basketball’s greatest trivia questions.
At tipoff, the official UMBC Athletics Twitter account had about 5,400 followers. By the next Monday, that number had ballooned to 111,000.
Now, nearly a year later, it still has just under 85,000.
“The brand recognition is now much better,” said Zach Seidel, the Retrievers’ director of digital media and a 2012 UMBC graduate. “The running joke was, anywhere I went in college, people would ask, ‘UMBC? What does that stand for?’ It’s a point of pride now.”
In the nearly full year since the win, the 52-year-old school has cashed in on what Odom and his team accomplished, seeing a 10 percent rise in undergraduate applications to the university and 20-plus-point jump in the average SAT score of admitted students.
It’s impossible to track how much of that relates directly to the exposure the basketball team gave the school — UMBC also had its first Rhodes Scholar in 2018 — but school officials say the NCAA tournament win had a significant impact.
“We’re out at college fairs where people may not know who you are, because you’re one of 200 other colleges,” said Dale Bittinger, the assistant vice provost for undergraduate admissions. “‘Oh, you’re the basketball team.’ It’s just the instant recognition. No one was asking about UMBC’s basketball team in previous years.”
Bittinger and his family were in the crowd in Charlotte, N.C., last year to watch the Retrievers’ big win. He keeps a photo of them immediately after the win as the screensaver on his laptop. On the drive home, he recalls hearing an ESPN radio host declare that the happiest person in the world had to be UMBC’s admissions director.
“There’s this sense of pride that’s been there on the academic side about some of our accomplishments,” said Bittinger, who’s worked at the school for 19 years. “Now we’re having a sense of pride of others knowing UMBC for other things, too. We really are that little engine that could.”
Attendance at the Event Center is up 38.4 percent this season over last, and the school has brought in 114 percent more money from ticket sales.
Odom did well, too. In an attempt to fend off suitors — for now, at least — UMBC gave the 44-year-old North Carolina native a new contract that nearly doubled his salary. His annual base of $425,000, while far below that of U.Va.’s Tony Bennett, is reportedly the highest in the America East.
For Hall, the new deal was UMBC doing everything it could to keep a rising star in the coaching profession on campus a little longer.
“We know really clearly who we are,” Hall said. “We know the next time, we probably won’t be able to. We know what our limitations are.”
But for now, Odom — the son of former Wake Forest coach and U.Va. assistant Dave Odom — said he’s happy striving to build the Retrievers into a consistent mid-major winner and doesn’t spend any time thinking about leaving.
“I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion. I love it here,” Odom said. “One of the things my father and mother taught me growing up — we’re not people who chase money. Happiness, yeah. Happiness and impact. For me, this is a great opportunity.”
UMBC went 19-12 this regular season, finishing third in the America East with an 11-5 mark. It’s done that despite losing key figures from last year’s giant slayers, including guards Jairus Lyles and K.J. Maura and forward Jourdan Grant, and dealing with a slew of injuries.
That’s just two less wins and one less conference win then it had at this time last year. Odom’s squad has become more defensive-minded this season. The Retrievers score 6.2 points fewer per game but allow 6.6 fewer to opponents, giving up a league-low 63.6 points an outing.
While Virginia has blasted its way through another regular season, currently 27-2 and on pace for another league title and – yes, you guessed it – another one-seed in the NCAA tournament, the Retrievers are hoping to find another bit of March magic.
“Once you’ve tasted it, it does drive you,” Odom said. “That feeling that you have when you enter the NCAA tournament, there’s not a better feeling for a team at our level. It’s a remarkable feeling.
“We do have some guys in our locker room who have been there and want to do it again, and we have other guys who haven’t and are hungry for it.”
A year since stunning the college basketball world, where is UMBC? Back on the court, sweat dripping in players’ eyes as Odom pushes and prods them toward what he hopes will be another memorable march in March.
Saturday, they’ll host Albany in the first round of the America East tournament. When the teams tip off, they’ll do so under last year’s NCAA tournament banner.