If you were looking for Retrievers, why in the world wouldn’t you go to Barking Abbey?
That’s what UMBC head men’s basketball coach Ryan Odom did, making the trek across the Atlantic to eastern London to the secondary school named for the local borough. This burgeoning British home for aspiring basketballers is just a scone’s throw from the River Thames, and Odom used his connections there to reel two tall chaps in to Catonsville, Md., in 6-foot-9 Daniel Akin and 6-foot-3 R.J. Eytle-Rock.
Odom had first visited there as an assistant coach at Charlotte, but when on the trail of hoopers who can help, he was only too happy to venture back.
“They called me about Daniel and when I was over there, I saw R.J., play, too,” said Odom of his coaching chums at the school that had reached out. “Basketball is becoming more and more popular over there and when you see guys like Dan and R.J. having success that’s only going to grow the game.”
Akin (pronounced Ah-kin) and Eytle-Rock have certainly grown their games since coming stateside. They were both integral this season as a veteran Retrievers team chased down a 14-6 record, going 10-4 in the America East and earning a share of the regular-season crown. Unfortunately, top-seed UMBC fell 79-77 to sixth-seed UMass Lowell March 6 in the tournament semifinals, a disappointing end to a very good season.
“It’s tough,” Odom said of the Retrievers surrendering a 16-point second half lead to the River Hawks. “You can blame it on a lot of different things, but we played well enough out of the gate. … We just didn’t finish the game.”
Akin, Eytle-Rock and all the Retrievers were disappointed after winning four the last five regular-season games and playing so well most of the season and most of this game. There was a feeling UMBC had more basketball to play, but that could be tough in the pandemic postseason.
“We have a lot of pieces, a lot of guys that are really good in roles,” said Akin of what made the Retrievers’ run possible. “It makes us hard to guard. We’ve got a lot of guys you have to account for.”
While Akin does a lot of the dirty work around the basket to unleash the Retrievers, the guy opponents really have to account for is Eytle-Rock, the team’s leading scorer, who finished with career bests of 14.3 points and 4.9 rebounds, 47 percent shooting overall and 40 percent from three.
“He does everything for us,” said Odom, the 2020-21 America East Coach of the Year. “He has become a reliable scorer now. He has always attacked the basket and played really good defense. When he first came in, he was more of a facilitator and now he has grown into more of a dominant player.”
Eytle-Rock has become a more cheeky fellow offensively, a natural progression, he said.
“It’s just confidence in myself and knowing when to attack and knowing when to pause, being a guard and knowing when to involve my teammates,” Eytle-Rock said. “I think I’m more comfortable in my game.”
Eytle-Rock’s mother, Ruth Eytle, is a basketball coach so she got a rock in his hands early on.
“When I was young, I followed her around and basketball just became second nature,” he said. “I played soccer, but I fell in love with basketball.”
The game loves him, too. Eytle-Rock was first-team All-America East this year and pumped in 27 points and a game-winning shot at New Hampshire. It’s one of three 20-plus performances this season in the balanced offense, including two in the last five games. Eytle-Rock was in double figures 16 times this year and ended on a 12-game streak of such performances. He had 18 points despite foul trouble against UMass Lowell.
“Confident is the word I would use,” Odom said. “He’s so versatile. He’s a big guy, tall, but has physical size as well. The guys all have confidence in him, too, and look to him to make plays.”
Eytle-Rock battled injuries in 2019-20 but once he got healthy, he came on, “playing lights out down the stretch,” according to Odom, including a career-high 31 points against Vermont in the America East semifinals. Now the bulky Brit is a bloody matchup nightmare — too big and physical for smaller guards who get caught on his bum and too skilled for lanky wings who don’t have enough in their “boot”– for many foes to handle.
Injuries have also played a role in Akin’s UMBC career. He has had two knee surgeries so far, and this year, he had come back from a broken nose and accompanying surgery just in time to roll his ankle in practice. He has missed four games but seemed headed toward full health at just the right time.
“Dan’s the best athlete on the team,” Odom said. “He’s a great rebounder, a guy that really gets your attention inside when he catches the ball. If you don’t get bodies around him he has the quickness to get right around you. Defensively, he’s really versatile. He can guard one through five. He’s a weapon.”
Akin averaged 7.9 points and 6.4 rebounds and shot 58 percent from the field, playing a key role inside along with fellow senior post Dimitrije Spasojevic. Of course, all-conference forward Brandon Horvath, America East Sixth Man of the Year Keondre Kennedy, veteran guards L.J. Owens and mighty-mite Darnell Rogers were also heroes all season long.
Odom loves Akin’s competitiveness and like everyone, the distinctive British accents of his two imports. They’re popular teammates but the fact that there are two of them playing 3,600 miles from home has also helped each of them.
“It helps having someone that really understands you,” Eytle-Rock said. “It makes it easier.”
Akin said the toughest part, other than missing homecooked eggs and beans for breakfast, is the separation from family and friends back home.
“It’s funny because everyone assumes people from England drinks tea and eats biscuits,” Akin laughed of some common American misconceptions.
For Akin to stay in touch with his roots, it takes planning.
“I find I really have to stay on top of things,” Akin said, “because it’s a five-hour time difference if I want to reach out to my family.”
Akin started growing out of his other sports — he competed internationally in team handball and was ranked No. 3 in England in the high jump — when he started watching basketball during the 2012 London Olympics. He also hit a growth spurt and a physical education teacher made sure he found his way to the basketball court. He’s a late bloomer who though a senior, has the option to come back next year under NCAA rules regarding the pandemic.
Eytle-Rock, a junior, was ahead of him in learning the game but had to wait longer to become a Retriever when the two got to the United States. Odom had a scholarship for his new big man, Akin, but the Retrievers had plenty of guards with K.J. Maura, Jarius Lyles, Jourdan Grant and Rodney Elliott in the program when they were recruiting Eytle-Rock. Eytle-Rock ended up prepping a year at The Peddie School in New Jersey.
Odom often drove north to see Eytle-Rock that year and reiterate Retriever regard in him. Eytle-Rock and Akin were both sold early on, though, with the program and coaching staff.
“UMBC showed the most interest,” Akin said. “Odom came over [to Barking Abbey] to speak to me. If he was willing to do that, that meant a lot.”
Those trips afar and the results these Retrievers have produced have proven Odom wasn’t barking up the wrong tree.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of UMBC Athletics