Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Clunker of a start

I normally try to get my opinion of the previous week's games out by Tuesday. However, the motivation for this one is real low. UT-Arlington men's basketball looked terrible.

I wonder how much of the disappointment is based on expectations versus what happened on the court. At this stage of the UTA basketball's development, I think fans are expecting more winning. The coaching staff is pretty stable. They have a state-of-the-art arena to recruit. While the budget - higher end of the lower half of the Sun Belt Conference -  isn't large, it is enough to compete at our level. While there was some turnover in the roster, as there usually is every year, there isn't a lack of talent on the team. So when they come out of the first week of conference play at 0-2, both at home, it is disappointing. Reflecting what Coach Cross said in the post-game presser after the first loss to Arkansas State, it was embarrassing (more on why in a bit).

On the flip side is the women's team, preseason last place team in the preseason poll, as well as the less prestigious Maverick Rambler poll. They went 0-2, but there is far less disappointment because they competed in both games and could have been 2-0 had a couple bounces gone the right way. For both genders, the SBC Arkansas schools are top half of the conference teams. So a tough performance in both games for the women actually is a bit of a cause for optimism. That just isn't there for the men right now.

On Thursday's loss to Arkansas State, the men played well in the first half as the teams went into the locker room with a 32-32 tie. Junior guard Lonnie McClanahan almost made a reverse layup at the buzzer for a lead. The defense was pressing well, forcing the Red Wolves into turnovers and mistakes.

I don't know if it was the lack of intensity on the Mavericks or whether John Brady's bunch at ASU figured some things out, but UTA look dreadful in the second. With a little less than three minutes gone in the half, UTA actually held a 38-36 lead. Then the floodgates didn't just opened, the burst. ASU scored 21 straight points, including four three-pointers, as part of an overall 25-2 run. The Maverick defense looked lethargic, offense committed two turnovers while missing nine shots, six threes, and a free throw. At one point, the CPC scoreboard showed UTA's three point percentage as 6. Not a typo. Before Reger Dowell hit a three with three and a half minutes left in the game, the UTA Mavericks were shooting six percent from the arc. My gosh! Dowell shot 4 of 5 from downtown after that point, and the team finished 5 of 22 for the night. Yikes!

While Dowell scored 28 for the game, 17 of those points came after ASU built a 77-48 lead. It made the final score of 82-66 look halfway respectable, but the outcome wasn't in doubt by the second media timeout.

Brandon Edwards was AWOL for the night. In 24 minutes, he scored two points. If it weren't for his nine rebounds and a block, he wouldn't have been a factor at all. His two points came at the free throw line. From the field he was 0-3. For a guy who came averaging close to 20, that is inexcusable. The offense has to get him the ball. He didn't take many shots or get a chance underneath to draw fouls either. I don't know if that was the players fault, the ASU interior D or the offense not getting him the ball enough and settling for the three pointer instead. Brandon is shooting over 31% from three and two of his three shots were from threeland. That means he took one shot inside. Are you kidding me!

He did play in foul trouble, four on the night, which lead to only 24 minutes, his season average is 33 a game. But the first foul didn't come until six minutes left in the first half. He picked up his second two minutes later and was subbed out. He picked up his third at the 17:06 mark in the second half and was taken out of the game with UTA leading 36-35. That was the start of the 25-2 run and if you ever needed to know how important he is to this team, that says it all right there. By the time he came back in, ASU was on a 10-2 run. They would get 15 more without a UTA answer. I'm not going to say it was his playing in foul trouble that was the impetus or cause for the run, but I can see where three fouls with 15 minutes left would ease the intensity of his play.

In the end, though, I don't know that anything would have made a difference. I thought Dowell late effort was too little too late. I thought McClanahan needed to play with more savvy, instead of leading an offense into another missed three. While there were spurts of greatness from Anthony Walker, the interior play has to get better on both sides of theball. The defense has to improve. The D has always been susceptible to the three, but now it is worse without the great interior play to back it up. I saw hustle from Jorge Bilbao and was quite pleased with that. But he only played 13 minutes and shot 33% on six shots and missed his only free throw. His three offensive rebounds were made on almost pure hustle.

While Saturday's game against Arkansas-Little Rock was a better performance, a 72-70 drawback is still 0-1 in the standings just as much as a 82-66 loss. It followed a similar storyline that we have seen all year. Get down early, make a comeback, not have just enough to lose the game close. UTA is 5-9 this year. Five of those losses are by three possessions or less. Of the wins, only CSU-Bakersfield was by the same margin on the winning side. It is very very frustrating.

UTA trailed by as many as 11 in the first half before tying. Stuart Lagerson had a chance for the go ahead bucket, but missed a shot underneath. UALR then took another lead to start the second half, largest was ten points. Just like last game, UTA's opponent came out hot, hitting a three. Unlike last game, though, the Mavericks didn't wilt. They kept chugging back until the tied it at 70 with 31 seconds left. Give a lot of credit to Josh Hagins, who hit the longest possible two at the buzzer to win it, but UTA has to figure out a way to play 40 minutes of basketball and make that shot meaningless. If the first ten minutes of the half saw the same UTA intensity as the second, they win by double digits.

I just don't know what it is that causes this team to play cold for long stretches and then go hot and look like world beaters. Whether it is player style, conditioning, depth, coaching style, anything else or combination of any of those, this team hasn't played forty minutes all year against DI competition.

In this case, I do think UALR is better than I gave them credit for in my poll, but not for the reasons we were told. Will Neighbour is a good player. But individually, I was more impressed with James White. In 24 minutes, he scored 18 points, compared with Neighbour's 17 in 35 minutes. While Neighbour garnered the attention of UTA's D, White seemed to fluster them. He shot 8-12 from the field. UTA just couldn't stop them. As a whole, UALR is one of the better teams I have seen. They play well together. In fact, they play very similar to the success UTA teams of the past few years.

It makes sense in part that White was successful. UTA doesn't have the size, neither in height, weight or skill underneath. That is the Achilles Heel of this team. It really shows just how important Jordan Reeves was to this team, despite rumors of his lack of play on the offensive end. Brandon Edwards can play well, but he needs someone like Jordan to step in and help.

I said at the beginning of the year that Stuart Lagerson would need to step into that role. Neither he nor anyone else has been able to control the middle. I've seen flashes from 6'9" junior Anthony Walker, 6-10 freshman Brandon Williams and 6-8 freshman Bilbao, but for a whole game no one has stepped up consistently. Coach Cross has gone with a three guard starting lineup that has featured Dowell (14 starts out of 14 games), McClanahan (10), Jamel Outler (6) and Shaquille White-Miller (4). 6'5" junior Vincent Dillard, who is listed as a forward, has a guard-style play and he has eight starts. Only Brandon Edwards (14) has started consistently on the interior.

UTA chooses a zone defense to try to overcome that. The Kentucky fans we sat next to complemented the way UTA ran it, but I have seen it give up too many three's, and that was the case against UALR, who shot only 4 -10. However, without a tall or physical player at the five spot, it hasn't been as consistent or good as years past. That is one reason I was encouraged by the full court press against the Red Wolves. It was designed to play to the Mavericks strengths, which is quick, agile guard play.

Next up for the Mavs will be Louisiana-Monroe on Thursday at noon (not a typo) at CPC to wrap up a four-game home stand. Remember that UTA went 1-3 last year in a similar type home stand to open conference play. At best they can do is 2-2. The Warhawks beat Louisiana-Lafayette at home in double overtime in their only game last week. On Saturday, UTA travels to ULL for their first SBC road game. That tips off at one PM.

In the all-time series', UTA trails UL-M 12-46 as well as the Cajuns 7-10. If UTA can't add some wins to those columns this week, the year by be effectively written off. 1-3 or 0-4 in conference play with three of those games at home would be a tall hill to climb.

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