After consistently reaching the double-digit plateau the late-2000's UMBC has fallen on tough times in the 2010's: Going just 15-24 since the dawn of the new decade, the Retrievers have groped their way through the America East without a taste of the NCAA Tournament. Last year was a perfect microcosim of UMBC's situation, finishing in the bottom-third of the country in adjusted efficiency margin (45th, to be exact) without significantly improving from 2011 (with a concomitant drop in overall winning percentage).
2013, as a result, is going to be an important season for the Retrievers. The schedule UMBC will play isn't exactly a cakewalk, and head coach Don Zimmerman noted that in the school's release:
"We will play an extremely aggressive schedule in 2013,” said the UMBC mentor, entering his 20th season at the helm of the Retrievers. “Playing five of our first six games on the road, including four games at Loyola, at Fairfield, at Maryland, and at Hopkins in eleven days, the Retrievers will no doubt be "battle-tested" going into the always-competitive America East Conference games beginning at Hartford on March 30th."
I don't know how much being "battle-tested" will ultimately determine UMBC's overall effort next spring -- the Retrievers played a schedule ranked 28th and 31st nationally in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and UMBC went 11-15 in those two years combined -- but it's at least something the Retrievers can chase after. Let's pick this slate to pieces.
Four Rounds Against Boxing Robots
February 26: @ Loyola; March 2: @ Fairfield; March 6: @ Maryland; March 8: @ Johns Hopkins
Not only is it four games in 10 days for UMBC, it's four games in 10 games against three teams that will likely reside in or just outside the top five when the Retrievers see them and a fourth team that has top 20 potential. And all these games are on the road. (Admittedly, only one of those contests requires a somewhat substantial bus trip, but you get the idea.) UMBC isn't backing off putting some strength on its schedule, likely buoyed by the program's insane upset of the Terrapins at UMBC Stadium last March (an upset that ranked first in LaxPower's ratings last season). The Retrievers will probably be strong underdogs in three of those four games, but given the fact that these tilts are happening early in the year when all kinds of crazy nonsense happens, UMBC has at least a puncher's chance to steal a victory (even if that puncher is facing a boxing robot that is designed to annihilate without compassion).
Who Are You?
February 16: @ Robert Morris; February 23: Rutgers; March 16: High Point; March 19: Towson; March 23: Mount St. Mary's
The difference between staying above .500 and dropping below the mark is, in my cases, built upon how teams perform against opponents in similarly-situated competitive positions. These games -- an important date against NEC contender Robert Morris; what should be a game that UMBC takes at home against a Scarlet Knights program in year two of the Brian Brecht era; a muscle-flexer against Division I neophyte High Point; and two important local games against a Towson team that looks like it's going in the right direction under Shawn Nadelen and a Mount St. Mary's squad which could repeat its trip to the NEC Championship in 2013 -- will help shape what kind of season the Retrievers will put together in the spring. UMBC has been uneven in these games in the recent past, and a repeat of that chorus could mean a lot of trouble for a program that has a nice tradition of success.
When All Else Fails, America East
March 30: @ Harford; April 6: Vermont; April 13: @ Stony Brook; April 20: @ Albany; April 27: Binghamton
These games will be played. I have no idea what will happen except that UMBC -- simply by being a member of the America East -- has as good a shot as any team in the conference to make the NCAA Tournament. Second chances are a hauntingly beautiful thing.