The visitors locker room at Allen Fieldhouse is where dreams come to die. Smaller than you might expect, too. The room is the size of the lane on a basketball court, perhaps a bit bigger, just enough for 15 or so folding chairs.
This is UMKC’s best team in years, but the same might eventually be said of Kansas so there was never much doubt about whether this would end with another Rock Chalk chant. Maybe the men in this room expected to win. Maybe some didn’t.
But they sure as heck didn’t expect this, a 105-62 loss on Tuesday, a first half the coach called “an ass kicking“ followed by something even worse in the second half. They sure didn’t need Kansas’ collection of future millionaires hitting 15 of 27 three-pointers.
“Damn,” someone says.
“(Expletive),” someone else replies.
“Bless you,” a few say when a teammate sneezes.
Kareem Richardson walks in and everyone looks up at the head coach. An athletic department official said the biggest drag on the program has been hiring the wrong coaches, but there is optimism around Richardson, who took the UMKC job after serving as an assistant when Louisville won the national championship in 2013.
Richardson is intense, his bright eyes staring through you when he speaks, and in moments like these — when something he saw on a basketball court wasn’t good enough — bring out a controlled rage that’s helped tug this program forward yet so far from where Richardson wants it to be.
A week earlier, he said “I’m not stupid” when talking about his team’s chances in this game. He hates these “buy” games, but his athletic department requires his program to bring in $180,000 in guarantees. Kansas will send a $75,000 check in a few weeks, at its next billing cycle, but either way Richardson’s job means being able to pull the teaching moments out of what everyone understands is a cold business transaction.
At the moment, he is focused on a few points he’s been emphasizing for days and weeks and months with this group. Communication. Energy. Starting the second half strong.
“It has nothing to do with Kansas,” he says. “We did the same (expletive) against South Dakota State. We did the same (expletive) Murray State. We did the same (expletive) Bowling Green. We did the same (expletive) Green Bay. Right here. Same (expletive).”
Richardson’s words have a bigger purpose, and not just the typical stuff about winning games and building character that all coaches talk about. The men’s basketball program is the school’s most visible asset, and is being backed by more planning and hope than any point in years and, more importantly, more corporate sponsorship than any point ever. A 6-2 start was the program’s best in more than a decade.
This is a commuter school trying to lose that label, and it sees basketball as a major part of the journey. They sponsored a streetcar stop, partnered with Uber for free rides, earned some local juice with uniforms designed by Charlie Hustle, and have grown a bigger social media presence. Basically, they’re emphasizing the Kansas City in their name.
So this is more than Richardson cursing in front of a dry erase board.
“I want people to see us,” said Carla Wilson, a UMKC grad and now the athletic director. “We’re the only Division I team in Kansas City. A lot of times, UMKC gets overlooked.”
The Kincaid bus with the UMKC logo and Kansas City skyline painted on the side parks off the southeast corner of the fieldhouse at 5:18 p.m. The GPS had them arriving 12 minutes earlier at one point, but that was before the driver got lost at the new Kansas 10 interchange.
They came here after a pregame meal of pasta served in a room the size of a large closet. They thought they had a bigger room reserved, but were kicked out because of a tutoring session for final exams. They call themselves mid-major, but that’s probably generous.
This is very much a program trying to be better than its empty past but still not where it wants to be. The Kangaroos were tied for fifth in the preseason voting by coaches in the Western Athletic Conference. This is the their second conference in 11 years, and nobody has any illusions that more than one of the eight teams will be invited to the NCAA Tournament.
UMKC beat Mizzou and Mississippi State last year, and nearly beat Kansas State two years ago. Missouri coach Kim Anderson and K-State’s Bruce Weber have sworn off playing UMKC again, and Ben Howland tried to get out of Mississippi State’s home game against the Roos later this month.
Too good to be a tomato can, and not good enough to fully control their own way. This is UMKC’s awkward current existence. They have to take these buy games, so they might as well make the most of them.
“Josh Jackson,” says assistant Chris Hollender, giving out the pregame scouting report. “When he’s in the high post, man, he catches the ball there and you have to know he’s trying to make plays. Left, spin back. Right, drive at the rim.”
Kansas’ athletic advantage means UMKC will play a lot of zone. The plan includes contesting jump shots — “make them take a record number of contested threes,” Richardson says — and beating KU’s big guys down the court. Richardson doesn’t let a detail pass, so he stresses the importance of closing in on the right hands of KU’s shooters.
The game begins with UMKC doing everything it can. On the first possession, 6-8 senior Darnell Tillman defends KU freshman Udoka Azubuike with the exact angle the coaches wanted, then outran the bigger man down the court.
But KU’s Devonté Graham stole the pass, and the fast break coming back ended with a layup by Jackson. It was everything the UMKC coaches talked about. The defense. The sprinting. The aggression. It just didn’t work.
This is how it went too often. UMKC’s first “buy” game was at Creighton — for a bigger check than Kansas pays, incidentally — and it was nothing like this. The Roos began timid, the moment perhaps too big, but found their legs and eventually lost by seven. Wisconsin lost by 12 in that building four days later.
Against Kansas, though, UKMC started strong but faded fast. At one point, they had hit six of seven three-pointers and still trailed by eight. Once the shots stopped falling, the margin grew — 16 at halftime, 26 when Richardson called a timeout early in the second half, and 42 at the under-8 timeout when fans here started heading out.
“I was hoping to see more consistent competitive fire,” Richardson said after. “For whatever reason, we lost that fire. That was disappointing.”
The Kincaid bus with the logo and the skyline chugs away from the fieldhouse at 9:44 p.m., exactly 266 minutes after parking.
Richardson thinks his players will get over this loss quicker than he will. He likes this team. Likes this group. He wants to play fast on offense and hard on defense, and for the most part, this team is getting closer.
“Their strength, to me, is their ability to make people have to chase them,” KU coach Bill Self said. “Their quickness, their ability to play small, stretch the defense, and shoot a lot of threes … I actually think this is the best team they’ve had since he’s been there.”
Richardson is in his fourth season, and thinks that, too. But on this night, he didn’t like the effort, or the focus. His players are, by definition, flawed in some ways when compared to the high school All-Americans at Kansas.
Senior guard LaVell Boyd is the team’s leading scorer, and probably its best player, but there is an obvious difference in his athleticism compared to KU’s guards. Kyle Steward is talented, but inconsistent. Isaiah Ross is a freshman and terrific shooter, but needs to fill out his body and his game.
The suspension of Martez Harrison continues to hang over the team, too. He’s a senior, a former prep star at University Academy and the WAC player of the year in 2015, but has been suspended the last four games. Richardson won’t say what happened, other than it’s not a legal matter, or a problem with NCAA eligibility. The suspension is indefinite, and after the KU loss Richardson wouldn’t rule out Harrison being unable to play the rest of the season.
Richardson had hoped his program was past this. The Roos went 12-19 last season, including just 4-10 in conference, and Richardson blames poor chemistry and what he counts as 15 separate distractions, including suspensions and an investigation that ended with assistant coach Andre McGee resigning over a recruiting scandal from his previous job. This season already includes one big distraction.
Harrison is not just a scorer. He is the loudest talker on a team Richardson wants to talk more. Even while suspended, he’s the one offering the most detailed tips before the game and during halftime.
But the schedule waits for no one. The Roos have now lost two straight after the 6-2 start. Both were on the road, to the programs with the longest (Kansas) and second-longest (South Dakota State) home win streaks in the country.
This doesn’t have to be a season killer, but it also isn’t progress, which is why Richardson asks five or so players individually about the last time they did extra conditioning or went to the gym on their own. The answers, mostly, aren’t good.
This is the program’s place in the world. They have big dreams at UMKC. They want to be promoted to the Missouri Valley Conference someday, but know they probably must make the NCAA Tournament first, then do it again, and again and improve facilities along the way.
The only way to do that is with a thousand of these small moments, and then a thousand more. UMKC plays William Jewell on Saturday. Richardson did that on purpose, a hopeful pick-me-up after the KU game. Moment by moment, month by month.
“We need to keep going,” Richardson says. “We’ve come a long ways, but we have a long ways to go. It’s not going to just happen.”