How Does A College Hoops Team Develop A Faster Tempo? For UMBC, It’s A Process

In Jim Ferry’s first year as head coach of the UMBC men’s basketball team, the Retrievers have occasionally flashed the style Ferry envisions for the program long term.

Those flashes:

— Scoring 98 points against American Nov. 23
— 87 points at Pitt Nov. 27
— 98 points against Columbia Dec. 1
— 88 points at Maine Jan. 22
— 88 points against New Hampshire Feb. 5
— 95 points against Stony Brook Feb. 16

The win against Stony Brook in particular was a window into what Ferry is trying to build: 21 assists on 33 made baskets, shooting the lights out (18 threes) and getting up and down the floor.

“That’s always the style of play I strive for. I’d love to score 100. You don’t. At this level, if you can get to 75, 80, that’s high octane,” Ferry said after the game. “We’ve done it several times this year. It’s just doing it consistently. But this is the pace we want to play at.”

Ferry was previously the head man at LIU Brooklyn (2002-2012), Duquesne (2012-2017) and Penn State (2021). LIU Brooklyn once finished as high as No. 2 in adjusted tempo on KenPom, a college basketball analytics site, during Ferry’s tenure. Duquesne once finished as high as No. 16. Penn State finished No. 125 in 2021, but Ferry was installed as the interim coach just before the season started.

Entering play Feb. 22, UMBC ranks No. 109 in tempo on KenPom, a departure from the style the Retrievers played under Ryan Odom, who preferred to play at a slower pace (No. 208 in tempo in 2020-21) while prioritizing defense. It worked: Odom went 97-60 in five years at UMBC.

Ferry was hired by UMBC shortly after Odom left for Utah State. Guard RJ Eytle-Rock and forward Brandon Horvath followed Odom to the Beehive State, but key guards Keondre Kennedy, L.J. Owens and Darnell Rogers opted to play for Ferry rather than depart via the transfer portal. Those three seniors are combining to average more than 35 points per game for a team with a 13-13 overall mark (8-7 in the America East).

Developing a new style of play with players who had enjoyed success another way was a process that began in the summer, according to Ferry. However, not long after the Retrievers got rolling during that stretch against American, Pitt and Columbia, they had to pause due to COVID-19. UMBC didn’t play for three weeks from mid-December to early January, then lost four of its first five out of the break.

“Everybody likes to hear they want to play fast until they see what you have to do and it’s hard,” Ferry said. “I hate to keep saying this, but that COVID break really stymied our development. We were playing at a high rate. We were scoring a lot of points. The American game, the Columbia game, we were home and we were flying around. Those 15 days over Christmas break are usually times that you can really tweak things and get better, and we didn’t have it and it showed.”

The Retrievers are starting to get their bark back, even with a blowout loss at Vermont Feb. 19. They’ve won seven of their last 10, with Kennedy, Owens and Rogers playing big roles. All three fit into the style Ferry wants to play, and it starts on the practice court.

Kennedy is averaging a team-high 14.8 points and is shooting 40.7 percent from 3-point range while also contributing 5.0 rebounds. Kennedy began to play on the ball more under Odom last year, which helped unlock his game. The 6-foot-6, 180-pound guard has taken more steps forward this year under Ferry.

“Practice is always fun,” Kennedy said. “[Ferry] always is on us about going hard. If you go hard now, it’ll be easier in the game. He really just emphasizes that and just nails it in our heads to the point where it’s second-nature to you, so credit to him.”

Owens, a 6-foot-3, 165-pound guard out of Annapolis and Severn School, is shooting 43.1 percent from 3-point range. Rogers, a 5-foot-2, 150-pound guard out of Baltimore, is leading the team in assists (4.0 per game). He had a season-high 13 assists against Stony Brook Feb. 16.

“We practice up and down just so we can be in shape for the games,” Rogers said. “We’re pretty used to it now. When you get in a game, if you’re hitting shots you can stick with it, but if not you’ve got to slow it down. That’s the only adjustment, really.”

UMBC has three regular-season games left, including two at home. After that, the America East tournament takes place at campus sites across a seven-day period. The America East championship game March 12 will determine the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Don’t be surprised if the Retrievers’ offensive production continues to tick up as the calendar turns to March.

“It’s about putting five guys on the floor who can score the basketball — in all different ways, that’s fine — and each guy understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses and sharing the basketball,” Ferry said. “The phrase I use all the time is just let the ball find the shot. We have guys that can all score, so we want … pace and tempo. That means getting up the court in three seconds, spreading people out, moving the basketball.”

All statistics are entering UMBC’s game at Hartford Feb. 23.

Photo Credit: Gail Burton/UMBC Athletics

Luke Jackson

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