UMKC is in the midst of its longest homestand of the season, although from an atmosphere standpoint there’s not much of a home advantage these days.
A crowd in the hundreds clicked the turnstiles of the Kangaroos’ most recent game Thursday at Municipal Auditorium. It was a polite group, even hushing when an opponent attempted free throws.
The dance team and Kasey the kangaroo mascot danced, but no cheerleaders cheered; the squad was dropped as part of a $1.5 million athletics budget cut after last year. One concession stand was open for the entire building, and there wasn’t a line at halftime.
No pep band. The school’s fight song blared through the public-address system. And few students besides the UMKC women’s basketball team made the trek from campus to downtown.
Three decades into its Division I existence, UMKC continues to seek its place in the college basketball world and Kansas City sports scene. The Roos are in the wrong conference, with only two of their seven Western Athletic Conference opponents in the same time zone, and those schools are in Chicago and Edinburg, Texas, near the Mexico border.
The dream is to join the Missouri Valley Conference, but UMKC’s lack of men’s basketball success — no NCAA Tournament appearances, and last season’s team was only the school’s second to finish with a winning record in the last 11 years — has kept the program’s profile low.
When the Valley has sought new members in recent seasons, it considered UMKC and passed. Leaving behind the bus trips of the Summit League five years ago has proved to be a mistake for UMKC. The Kangaroos have finished with better conference records in the WAC, but that hasn’t gotten them closer to appearing in a league tournament title game.
UMKC played in a postseason event last year and won a game in the College Basketball Invitational. But all of the starters from that team moved on, leaving coach Kareem Richardson to essentially start anew in his fifth season.
Which is why the outcome of Thursday night’s game, before few fans and no cheerleaders, seemed so satisfying. The Kangaroos beat Cal State-Bakersfield 62-59 on a step-back three-pointer from sophomore point guard Xavier Bishop with 1.2 seconds remaining.
The evening matched teams that were winless in WAC play, and UMKC lugged a 5-14 overall record into the game. But for a squad with eight sophomores and freshmen among 10 players averaging double-digit minutes, the Kangaroos played with smarts and discipline. The effort was their best of the season, and Richardson was right when he said later, “Our guys deserved to win.”
UMKC won the way an undersized team should, by turning 15 Bakersfield turnovers into 19 points while committing only five mistakes. The guard-heavy Roos knocked down 11 three-pointers and 10 twos. They got hammered on the boards (23 rebounds to the visitors’ 42) but have guys who pester, looking to slap the ball away from rebounders or pick off the outlet pass.
Credit Richardson and his staff for creating an identity with an experienced team. He said he was worn out afterward from urging his team on, especially on the defensive end. The officials didn’t notice, but Richardson occasionally stepped beyond midcourt to deliver his encouragement.
The outcome was especially meaningful for the team’s lone senior regular, Broderick Robinson. He’s UMKC’s top scorer and was part of the building process that peaked last year. Now he is leading the next rebuild through its early stage.
“Some people get down, but you have to keep everybody positive in the locker room,” Robinson said.
In a less-than-ideal environment, the Kangaroos gave their few fans in attendance a happy ending on Thursday. Maybe the reward will be a few more cheering voices for Saturday’s 7 p.m. game at Municipal against Grand Canyon.