With the regular season over, the UT-Arlington men's basketball program had high hopes entering the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. After a rough stretch of four SBC loses in a row, already slim at-large chances to the NCAA tournament disappeared. There was a chance that their entire post-season possibilities could go up in flames if they didn't right the ship.
But right the ship they did, as they won eight of the next ten. Including in that streak was a win over Louisiana-Lafayette, which allowed them to jump a spot in the SBC standings. I think that would be one of the better wins of the year. It all but guaranteed a first round bye in the conference tournament as well. As it would turn out, UTA would clinch the third seed. The two losses in that streak were to the top two teams in the conference, Little Rock and Louisiana-Monroe though the last one was a tight affair.
That set the stage for the conference tournament. After getting eliminated last year by the Texas State Bobcats, UTA's in-state rival won their first round match-up, which would set up a rematch. After trailing at halftime, the Mavericks stormed back to take a 72-63 win, setting the stage for another shot at the Warhawks from Monroe. Things looked good early, as the Mavs would stake a 14-3 lead to open the affair, but that would really end the highlights, as the Mavs would end up on the short end of an 82-71 score that really wasn't that close.
For many Mav faithful, the season was over, but I knew it would go on. I didn't think an NIT invite was likely, and I certainly knew there was not going to be an NCAA invite. But I had a feeling the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, or CIT, was in the Mavs future, and that another game at College Park Center was on the horizon.
Late Sunday, it was announced that, yes, UTA would participate in the CIT tournament. I was a little surprised at first that the Mavs would head on the road to face Savannah State, a Mid Eastern Athletic Conference team that finished the year 16-15. More impressively, they were 12-2 at home.
Now before I break down this match-up further, let me explain something about the CIT. A couple of the message boards were in a small frenzy about how a 23-10 UTA squad would be sent on the road to face a 16-15 MEAC team. Some were insulted, saying how little regard it showed the Sun Belt as a basketball conference.
The reality is the CIT requires hosts teams to pay about $30,000 to host, money that goes to cover the costs of running the event. In essence, it operates like a guarantee game, where the host team pays the visiting team to come play them. Unlike a guarantee game, it is not intended to be profitable, but a break even proposition. It is the reality of life as team outside the "major" (I hate using any term that differentiates teams, as they are all in DI) conferences. Since there isn't adequate revenue sharing, this is how to increase postseason opportunities.
I'll use a base line from UTA's first postseason appearance, 1981. There are 351 Division I schools now, more than 100 more teams than there were then. Yet the postseason hasn't expanded much. The NIT still offers 32 spots while the NCAA tourney went from 48 spots to 68. Those extra 20 spots still do not offer an increased opportunity for postseason play for schools like UTA. The reality is most of the at-larges go to the upper echelon of NCAA conferences, the top five moneied conferences, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference, plus the American Athletic Conference, Atlantic-10 and Big East. The accounted for all but one of this year's at-large spots. In 1981, there were 26 auto-bids to the tourney. Now there are 32, so the reality is that there are six spots available for those extra 100+ schools since 1981.
The NIT might offer more slots now versus then, as that tournament now guarantees a slot to the schools that finish as the regular season champs, but didn't win their respective tournament. That accounted for 15 schools this year, or near half the NIT. Now that doesn't mean those teams would have been sitting at home before the NIT began accepting auto-bids, but some of them would have.
So in essence, there are 10-15 more postseason slots for the added teams that aren't in the top eight conferences.
So then what do you do if you are a school like UTA? Maybe it is just me, but I think a school that had UTA's non-conference results should get an opportunity to play. That happens several times in every conference. If a schools resides in the top eight of the NCAA's Division I hierarchy and get the exact same results, they'll have a postseason spot guaranteed.
To illustrate, both UTA (23-10, 3rd in SBC) and Louisiana Tech (23-9, 3rd in C-USA) beat Ohio State (20-13, 7th in Big 10) this year. Guess which one has an NIT at-large berth? The bigger conference school!
So if we can agree that UTA and similar schools playing in a tournament like the CIT is better than sitting at home, the only other disappointment must come from the fact that the CIT is a lower prestige tournament. To me, prestige is a point of view. Yes, playing for the national championship is better than anything else in the postseason. But, other than playing in New York, is the NIT better?
15 of the schools are the equivalent to the teams in the CIT. Many of the others are like Ohio State, feeling disgruntled that their disappointing season that started with losses to "lower rung" schools like UTA and La Tech ended outside the NCAA. Is that really better than playing in the CIT? Remember Robert Morris' win over Kentucky in the first round of the NIT several years ago. If fans of schools like UTA are only interested in seeing their team play those top level schools, rather than their team alone, are they not guilty of the same elitism that keeps them out of those postseason tournaments?
UTA has very little history to fallback on. ASC/UTA has been playing as a basketball team for 57 years. This will be postseason tourney number five. Averaging less than one postseason appearance per decade... I guess you get where I'm going with that. The Mavs have now gone to (or will be going to, since they haven't played yet) four in the last nine years. Couple that a state-of-the-art arena, new found national recognition, a quality coach with a hometown discount possessing a new contract and an overall athletic department going in the right direction, and it makes sense to try and play in any postseason you can. Tournaments like this are how you build that history. Maybe some day, a decade or more in the future, we can attain a history like Western Kentucky or New Mexico State, with sustained success. Right now, we are just reaching that success, with no guarantee of sustainment.
Now as for the first round match-up, I believe the Mavericks have as favorable a game as any for the first round, as they seek their first postseason win. Savannah State's 16-15 mark is the worst percentage in the CIT. BUT...they are 12-2 at home. However, those 12 are against competition far lower than the Mavericks. One of the losses was to a 15-16 Eastern Kentucky team while the other was to a 13-19 North Carolina Central team. The MEAC is not a highly competitive conference, only four of the 13 finished with a winning record, so that is part of the reason for the win streak. Equally telling, though, is the Tigers are 2-12 on the road.
SSU is led by Troyce Manassa. The junior guard leads the team with 12.6 points per game and 2.4 assist per. He has a near 1.0 assist to turnover ratio. He is also third on the team in rebounding with an average of 5.1 boards per game.
Senior guard Chris Martin is the only other Tiger in double figures with 12.1 a contest. 6'8" Lenjo Kilo is the team leader in rebounds with 5.6, followed by 6'7" Brian Pearson with 5.3.
Nationally the Tigers ranked 341 in points per game in the NCAA, putting up 62.4, but were 70th overall in points allowed at 67.5. It seems to me at a cursory glance that SSU places a pace similar to that of Texas State. They are a defensive-minded team that works to make opposing teams earn their baskets.
The teams have two common opponents. The Tigers beat Arkansas State 76-75 and Georgia Southern 76-67, both at home. UTA swept stAte, 91-64 and 79-75, and split with Southern, 92-72 and 73-82.
This is a very winnable game for the Mavericks. I don't think there could be a more favorable match-up. The Mavericks play a very good game against grind-it-out teams. The key is rebounding and UTA is 14th nationally in rebounding margin and first (yes first) in all the NCAA for total rebounds. The Mavs grab a lot of offensive boards, almost 15, good for third overall in the NCAA.
Savannah State is a decent team, but I don't think there's a question that UTA is the better one. Tiger Arena is like a modern version of the old-school-style fieldhouses with a capacity between 5-6,000. They averaged 1,771 in attendance this year. I don't know what kind of crowd they are expecting, but arenas of those type tend to get loud even with smaller crowds.
I feel the Mavs may have a big obstacle in this game, and that's themselves. The Mavs are on the cusp of being a top 100 team in the RPI, currently 105. Savannah State is 277. In losses to South Alabama (240 RPI / Kevin Hervey not injured) and Georgia Southern (243), UTA was beat by a sixth man, themselves. That could easily happen again. I see two possible outcomes, either a big UTA win or a close UTA loss. Either way, it is fun to talk Maverick basketball after the conference tournament.