Sunday, February 16, 2014

Rise of the D

I mentioned last post that after UT Arlington dropped games against teams at the top of the Sun Belt Conference standings, they really needed to pick up wins against Louisiana-Monroe on the road and Texas State at home. While not every minute of the two games were great, the outcomes of the two games were what they needed to be for the Mavs, UTA wins.

Against the Warhawks in Monroe on Thursday, the Mavericks played one of the best all-around games of the season. It was reminiscent of the Troy game where UTA never gave up big runs, never let up the intensity and did what this team is capable of, beating any team in the Sun Belt conference.

With the win, UTA did something not often done. All-time, UTA was 4-28 in Monroe entering Thursday. Fant-Ewing Coliseum has never been friendly to the Mavs. Even with Thursday's win, UTA has just won 15% of the time there But for this season, they are undefeated in Monroe, and that is all that matters.

UTA has played ULM more than once quite often in their history, most as conference mates, some being just single-season home-and-home's. ULM had swept UTA during the regular season 17 times. The teams have split five times. With Thursday win, UTA has now swept Monroe for the fourth time.

Now understand these are two different teams then from now. ULM was a regional power, especially in the 80's and 90's. But due to various reasons, they just aren't what they once were. They haven't had a winning record at home for the last three full seasons. So far this year, though they are 5-5 with winnable games against the eighth and tenth (last) place teams left at Fant-Ewing.

Conversely, UTA is no longer the pushover it once was either. ULM's first season in the Southland Conference was UTA's first losing season after three winning years under Coach Bob "Snake" LeGrand. UTA would then embark on a streak of 14 losing seasons out of 17. Things would get better around the turn of the century and ULM would start a small decline, but they would leave the SLC before Coach Scott Cross andd his five winning seasons in seven years. In short, ULM is worse than they have been historically and UTA is better.

Nevertheless, UTA's win in Monroe was a rarity and kept the hopes of the Mavericks season alive at least until Saturday when UTA played rival Texas State.

There has always been something between UTA fans and Danny Kaspar, primarily because he was the coach at SFA, which was UTA's primary rival during the mid '90's and '00's. But with Texas State now being the Mavericks most continuous opponent as conference realignment moved the Mavs and Bobcats into two new conferences since their departure from the SLC two years ago, the SFA rivalry has cooled. Kaspar was a good hire for his basketball acumen for Texas State, but it will help the UTA-Texas State rivalry too.

Moving to Saturday's game, UTA's offense looked very flat to start the half, but luckily their defense was playing well. Going into the half, UTA scored just 25 points and trailed by eight.

The offense finally found their groove after the break. UTA hit 59% of their field goals in the second, compared to 30% in the previous half. In addition, the Mavs were hitting shots from behind the arc, 70% in the second after a 1-5 performance in the initial half.

Despite brief lapses periodically, the D won the game for UTA. They kept the score close in the first, despite the lack of offensive output. In the second, the pressure during the early part of the period was a key in the run that would give UTA the lead permanently. If UTA can keep the defensive intensity they showed this past week up, they will be poised to make a good run to end the season.

That run starts with a very big road trip this week. Thursday is a visit to Jonesboro to take on the fourth-place Red Wolves. The team is geared up for this one after a close first half at CPC turned into a laugher as Arkansas State embarrassed UTA.

After that is the fifth-place and slumping Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans. They beat UTA at CPC on a buzzer beater and were poised to be an upper level SBC team. However, they have lost four in a row, three to the current top three teams in the league. They will also have a week off before they see UTA on their home floor.

These games are crucial to seeding in the tournament. Two wins and UTA is guaranteed to move up a slot to fifth, and possibly a tie for fourth. When it comes to the conference tournament, the top two seeds get a double bye, meaning they only have to win two games for the NCAA auto-bid. The next two get a bye, while the fifth through eighth teams have to win four games against increasingly tougher competition.

After that, road games at Troy and South Alabama and home contests against Georgia State and Western Kentucky close out the season. Nothing is guaranteed, but I sure would like to have some positioning secured before the top two teams in the conference come to College Park Center.

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