Two months after the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s staggering NCAA Tournament blowout of the University of Virginia, a group of graduated Retrievers is itching to get back on the court and compete.
Enter The Basketball Tournament, the $2 million cash-prize tourney that brings teams of professional and former collegiate ballplayers together in a best-of-72, bracket-style playoff. Fresh off the hype from that win over UVA, nine players, including the leader of the first-ever UMBC squad to make the tournament in 2008 and a couple members of the forever-famous 2018 Cinderella team, have formed the Hilltop Dawgs.
They’re one of hundreds of squads vying for votes online right now to secure a spot in the tourney. A smaller number of teams can also get into the bracket with the blessing of a selection committee, by having made it to the final four of The Basketball Tournament in 2017, or by paying $5,000 for one of four slots. (The latter option is sold out.)
Representing the new school of Retriever alums are K.J. Maura, who gained fast fame during March Madness for his feisty play as an undersized point guard against UVA and Kansas State, and Jourdan Grant, who averaged 7.5 points per game over his four seasons and, alongside Maura and forward Jairus Lyles, helped lead the team during its 2018 campaign. (Per TBT’s website, Lyles is serving as a “booster” for the Hilltop Dawgs’ social media campaign, and could eventually join as a player.)
The most experienced alums on the nine-man roster are Andrew Feeley, a 2005 graduate who’s been playing pro ball overseas for the last 13 years, most recently in Argentina, and Ray Barbosa, who led the Retrievers in scoring as a senior in 2007-08 and propelled the program to its first-ever conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance.
Rounding out the list are three-time UMBC most-improved player Will Darley (2013-17), 2014 America East Rookie of the Year Rodney Elliott (2013-17), former team captain Chase Plummer (2010-14), 2014-15 scoring leader Wayne Sparrow, William Wise (2011-13) and Devarrick Houston (2013-15).
Barbosa, who played professionally in Puerto Rico for five years and was appointed in 2015 as head boys basketball coach of Bethlehem Catholic High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, says they got the idea to form a team this spring.
“I knew we had a lot of younger players that could still play, and we had some older guys that went on the 2008 team, or before that, and were still playing basketball… Why not get a UMBC team together?”
He’s welcoming the chance to return to competition as a player. “For Jourdan, he just got done playing… but for myself, it’s nice to get back into that competition nature.”
In a twist for a once-little recognized university, the UMBC name could be their ticket in. The most recent power rankings from TBT ranked the Hilltop Dawgs in 22nd place. “It is quite possible that UMBC is the most famous basketball program in the world right now,” an accompanying blurb noted.
Grant said he and Maura, a newly signed pro player in his home of Puerto Rico, are “definitely excited” about the prospect of playing with older alums. “It’s just a good opportunity to get the guys back together and compete,” he said.
“I definitely think we’ve got a good mix here,” Barbosa added. As for everyone getting familiar on the court, he said, “I think it only takes a couple times to get used to playing with somebody.”
Assuming they secure a spot in the bracket and can manage a run into the final four of this summer’s tournament, the Hilltop Dawgs would be competing before a hometown crowd, as Morgan State University is hosting the semifinals. As with past years, ESPN and ESPN2 will be broadcasting the semifinals and championship.
“It’d be a great opportunity to play here,” Grant said. “I think the fan base would come out, and it would be a great experience.”
In terms of fan support, The Hilltop Dawgs are currently ranked 33rd among eligible teams, which puts them somewhere in the running for one of the nine fan voting-driven bids for each region.
To give a vote of support, you can register for a free profile on TBT’s website and pick your team. Voting closes at noon on June 1, and the official bracket will be announced June 6.