Saturday, December 26, 2015

Non-Conference Play has Concluded

Since I became a Maverick in 2000, there has never been a more exciting time in UT Arlington basketball history than right now. In fact, looking back at the history of the program, I think I can say that with the possible exception of two-three years in the early 1980's, both teams have never been as national competitive as they are now. The men have made national, attention-grabbing wins (after being picked as the eighth best team in the 11-member Sun Belt by the coaches) and the women performed near expectations.

I'll break it down, starting with the men's team.

UTA opened the year with Fordham. They took control early, and looked like they would follow previous year's teams and watch the lead disappear. However, they made stops when they needed to and pulled out a 77-72 win. Fordham is not a powerhouse team, having won only ten games or less each of the past seven seasons and not having a winning record since 2006/07. Yet, they, like the Mavericks, have been more than was expected, as they sport a 9-2 record. It was a solid win, though no one knew it at the time.

Then UTA went on the road and held a 10-point halftime lead before losing by 12 to Louisiana Tech. That more than anything felt like the same ole, same ole. It was really disheartening and made me anticipate another .500 or so year. It is also this game I look at if I begin to think this team is a world beater. I want to keep expectations in check, but as I'll get to, and no doubt you already know, UTA looked spectacular from here on out.

And that spectacular started out at Ohio State, where they lead virtually the whole way. It was one of the more dominating games in recent memory. It appeared early in the season that the Buckeyes were a young team on the rebound, but they sit at 7-5 with a top 100 RPI and a win against Kentucky, so this win is getting better and better. If Ohio State does well in conference, this will continue to boost UTA's RPI, provided the Msvs perform well in conference too.

The second marquee win of the year came in the very next road game where UTA followed the same script and held control of most of the game in Memphis. The Tigers are 8-3, so I doubt they are down too much. While it is possible both Memphis and Ohio State aren't at their historic places in the college basketball spectrum, I think both will count this year as solid, quality wins.

UTA played a quick, easy home win against Grambling. Anyone who is a regular on this blog knows I don't give teams in the SWAC much credit. UTA traveled to Rice. That win is given as another quality win against a good program, but other than being in Conference USA, Rice isn't that great a team (5-7 right now).

Then the game that irked me the most, UTA traveled down to Austin to play the Longhorns. I hate playing there. Other than at Kentucky, I've never seen home-cooking like I do when teams (not just UTA) play at Frank Erwin. The Mavericks finished regulation tied, but in a bit of controversy, a UTA shot in the first half was ruled a two, but when reviewed was actually a three-point shot. When the refs were made aware of this, they said too much time had passed and the point could not be added to the board. That left a sour taste in my mouth, but in the end, UTA made 23 of 70 field goals and five of 29 three-pointers. They had their chance. Still, I hate going down to Austin and hope there are no more guarantee games there. Home-and-homes or nothing.

Luckily, North Texas came into Arlington after that loss, bringing the rivalry to College Park Center for the first time. UTA was in control for 35 total minutes and cruised to an easy win. The third-largest crowd ever on the campus saw the Mavericks at their finest.

A trip to UTEP was next and this could have easily been another trip up for the Mavericks as the Miners are usually a good team, but the Mavericks again controlled the entire game, playing solid D and making shots when they needed it. In a bit of a chocker to me, this was a guarntee game. I view UTEP as a peer and am surprised they are paying $80,000 to have a Sun Belt school come in. I'm disappointed the Miners aren't coming to CPC next year.

The last Division One game for UTA was at CPC when a young Bradley squad came to play. Mavericks again coasted to a solid 30-plus point win. That was followed by a 58-point win against Division III Sul Ross State.

All told, UTA went 3-1 against Conference USA, 1-0 against the Big Ten, American Athletic Conference, Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley. That is a great line. I have high hopes for this team, and it is just not in the way they have won, but how they have won. They rebound, play defense and don't get flustered at situations that hinder their style. The formula for winning is defense, rebounding and ball movement, and this team does all of that.

The women haven't grabbed the headlines like the men have, but they have done as expected in going 5-5 to start the year. That's good, since they were predicted to contend for the Sun Belt title.

They opened the year in the preseason WNIT, and in no surprise, lost to Baylor in Waco. They did host two games, beating Jacksonville, a smaller private school in Florida. The biggest disappointment overall to me is a loss to a good McNeese State team, currently 8-4 on the year. My hope is that UTA always beats Southland Conference schools, no matter how they finish within the SLC. It was a six-point loss, but the Mavs were outscored by 16 in the second half.

They followed that with a quality opponent where they looked good in a seven-point loss to Seton Hall It was the second ranked team in four opponents. The pirates have one loss on the season and sit 16th in RPI. It was the best looking loss of the year for the team. The Mavericks outscored Seton Hall by 9 in the fourth qaurter, their best 4th of the year.

UTA followed that with a home win against NAIA Missouri Valley College and then went to Nacogdoches and beat longtime rival Stephen F. Austin, snapping a Lumberjack 17-game home-winning streak. It was a tight game throughout, but they did enough to beat a decent 'jacks team.

In their worst overall performance, Kansas State paid to have the Mavericks play in Kansas. It was an ugly 20-point loss, where Kansas State took control and never let up.

That was followed by the worst fourth quarter the ladies have played this year when they hosted Western Kentucky. They were outscored by the former Sun Belt school 23-12 as a two-point lead to start the 4th turned into a nine-point loss. It is early and a 10 games is a very limited sample size, but the Mavericks have seemed to have fourth quarter struggles in most of their losses.

But that would be the last loss as UTA rebounded in a 24-point road win against Houston Baptist. As a bottom-half Southland Conference team, that is exactly as it needed to be.

That led to the final non-conference game, a road tilt against former conference rival UTSA. The roadrunners have been near the top of the Western Athletic Conference / Conference USA the last few years. UTA led by as much as 15 in the third quarter, before the 'runners made a comeback and trailed by 1 with 30 seconds left. Credit the Mavs, who made most of the free throws when they had to and got the stops on D. This time, the lead did not slip away in the fourth and UTA was able to get a C-USA win.

The offense has struggled for the ladies, as they sit 8th in the Sun Belt with an even 57 points per game, but the defense is doing very well, second at 55.4 points. They are near the top of the conference in three-point percentage, but that's about it offensively. Thankfully, a good defense will produce wins.

UTA plays good D and rebounds well. I'm pretty certain the offense will improve as conference play starts. 30 percent of the schedule is against Baylor, Seton Hall and Kansas State, very good teams. I believe UTA is headed in the direction of being able to beat these teams, but they are still young and aren't there yet. I'm optimistic this team will compete in the Sun Belt.

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