Growing up in Anne Arundel County, Brandon Horvath was never the kid in the class picture standing out in the back row. The tallest UMBC men’s basketball player even laughed at the notion.
“I was like 5-8 my sophomore year in high school,” the 6-foot-10 senior standout said. “I always played guard. I never played big man. I played point guard at Southern [High].”
Then came the junior year growth spurt.
Horvath shot up to 6-foot-4, and he kept growing through a prep school year at Kent (Conn.) School and then coming back home to play in Baltimore County. He’s still growing right now as we speak.
“We joke with him because he’s probably 6-11 now,” Retrievers head coach Ryan Odom said. “He doesn’t like being 6-11, but he’s the tallest guy on our team.”
It’s not that Horvath doesn’t like living large. He just doesn’t have much experience at being the “tall guy.” Long story, medium height, he doesn’t have a clue how it happened.
“I have no idea,” he said. “My dad is the tallest in my family by a mile and he’s 6-4 on a good day. [Coaches and teammates] want to put more inches on me, make me 6-11, but I’m actually only 6-9 ½, 6-10. I’ve honestly grown an inch or two this year so I’m still growing. I was barely 6-9 last year. It’s crazy.”
Call him a “stretched four.” He’s a matchup nightmare. Not just for opposing big men who can’t handle him on the perimeter or smaller forwards who have no chance of stopping him on the low block. He overmatches most beds, too, too long to sleep straight on. Door frames also win a lot of the matchups with him unless he remembers to duck.
He didn’t match up well with old shoes, socks and pants when he started growing, either.
“Most companies don’t target their products for 6-10 people because there aren’t that many in the whole world,” he said. “Everything is harder — going through doorways, shopping for pants, stuff like that. It’s definitely hard but I’m not mad at anyone for being 6-10.”
Funny. Horvath is playing like he’s mad at someone. He leads the 7-2 (3-1 in the America East) Retrievers with career bests in scoring (16.4 points per game), rebounding (8.5), field goal percentage (61.4). He’s also second on the team in 3-point percentage (44.0) and third in assists (2.4) and threes made per game (1.4). He’s closing in on 1,000 career points, too.
Horvath is part of a veteran nucleus that finished fast a year ago, winning seven of the last 10 games before bowing out in the America East semifinals at Vermont and finishing 16-17. They were picked second in the America East this year (behind Vermont) and had won seven in a row at one point before an upset loss to Binghamton Dec. 28 in the second of a back-to-back. (America East teams are playing league opponents in two-game weekend series at the same site this year.)
COVID concerns postponed games at Stony Brook Jan. 2-3. The Retrievers next play at New Hampshire Jan. 9-10.
Such is the 2020-21 college basketball landscape, and it’s a topic on which the thoughtful Horvath has been frequently quoted.
“I think the whole year is going to be who can adapt?” he said. “Different things are going to happen every day. We don’t even know if we’re going to be able to play tomorrow or the next day. So we’ve just got to be able to adapt quickly, and I think whoever can do that the best is going to have the best chance to win.”
Horvath has certainly learned about adapting. In some ways he’s still that high school point guard, perhaps with a better view, now in a 6-foot-10-or-so body. This season he’s, well, coming up big.
“He’s playing really well,” Odom said. “He’s off to a fast start, which is what we had hoped for him. He’s a versatile player. He can score with his back to the basket or he can score facing. He has turned into a guy that is one of the better players in our league and is a go-to guy for us.”
Fellow seniors Darnell Rogers and Daniel Akin are also important parts of Odom’s fast-rising mix. Junior R.J. Eytle-Rock is second on the team in scoring at 11.4 points per game, and classmates L.J. Owens and Keondre Kennedy are also redoubtable Retrievers, if not yet the lead dogs.
“We have a lot of experience on this team,” Horvath explained. “I think we have player-led leadership and that’s helped bring the new guys along. With the short offseason, there’s more learning on the fly. … We’re really connected, and things have been clicking.”
Horvath’s, ahem, growth was apparent quickly. He was the America East Player of the Week in mid-December after scoring a career-high 27 points against Albany. Akin had won the award a week prior. As such, Akin and Horvath became the first back-to-back conference players of the week for UMBC since the 2007-08 season.
Horvath has scored in double figures in every one of his games so far but missed the second Binghamton contest — the Retrievers’ first loss since the season-opener at Georgetown — with a shoulder injury. The time off has been good for him, and he’s prepared to shoulder the load again. Looking way ahead, something Horvath has already explained is hard to do this year, the regular season wraps up with a two-game set against Vermont in the UMBC Event Center Feb. 27-28.
“I’m shooting again and I’m ready,” he said, focused on the games at New Hampshire.
He was committed to sharpening that focus this season and just being better across the board, including on the boards. Horvath has a silky, smooth shooting form, taught to him early on by his baseball-playing father, Brian.
“He taught me to follow through,” Brandon said of his shot.
That follow-through is distinctive, Horvath’s right hand hanging high in the air as another 3-ball usually swishes through. It’s nearly a trademark now. And a tall sign of the West River, Md., native’s versatile game.
Learning to follow through also translated to making good decisions even as his body was changing so rapidly. He remained down to earth about his height rocketing skyward, and the patience he showed after high school has served him well.
Understanding how much another year of growth physically and emotionally would mean, he opted for a prep season at Kent, where he averaged 14 points and seven rebounds and not-so-low-and-behold, gained a couple more inches.
“I wasn’t ready, honestly,” he recalled. “My dad and my high school coaches, Will Maynard and Stephen Nesmith, were really adamant about me taking an extra year. I had that huge growth spurt, and it took a while to get used to that body and I wasn’t ready for the next level yet.”
UMBC’s previous coaching regime had recruited Horvath at Southern, and the Retrievers continued a heightened interest when Odom arrived. He had seen Horvath in AAU action and made a trip to Connecticut to see him in post-grad play.
Aki Thomas, the previous UMBC coach had offered Horvath a scholarship, and ultimately so did Odom.
“I chose to come back home and I liked the coaching staff, the new facilities, everything,” Horvath said. “The school’s really good and I think I made the right decision because I love it here.”
It wouldn’t be accurate to say UMBC grew on him, but everything else has, including the opportunity to play more basketball when his college career is finished. An economics major, he knows about trending up and emerging markets.
Right now, he’s high on the immediate future in Catonsville, Md. He has to keep adding a little width to that height and more muscle to help him defend at the next level, but the former point guard has a big future among the towers playing for pay somewhere.
And that’s no tall tale.
Photo Credit: Gail Burton