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.
It did end up as a big win, with the Mavericks defeating Savannah State 75-59. The team played very well in all facets of the game, as well as for most of the game. There was a stretch in the first half where SSU almost tied the game, and at the end, once the contest was well decided, but UTA did very, very well otherwise in earning the program's first postseason victory.
As a team with an RPI in the top three of the remaining teams in the tournament, UTA was given a second round bye into the quarterfinals. Their opponent was announced Monday. The New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders.
NJIT finished in a four-way tie for second place in the Atlantic Sun Conference. The 8-6 conference mark, coupled with a 17-14 overall regular season record earned the Highlanders an RPI ranking of 207.
Now as a frequent critic of the RPI formula, I don't put stock in the stat as a solid way of ranking teams and wish it could be revamped, if not thrown out altogether. In this case, the A-Sun had three of its teams with winning records, one at .500 and the remaining four with a minimum nine games below .500. The bottom of the conference will always drag the top teams down with this kind of setup. RPI is formulated with the team's winning percentage accounting for 25 percent of the formula, 50 percent opponents winning percentage and the remaining 25% your opponent's opponent winning percentage. Those four A-Sun teams were going to drag everyone else down no matter what they did. That's always been the case for schools outside the top eight conferences.
However, in NJIT's case, their out-of-conference schedule did them no favors. I don't see any non-conference opponents that standout in games NJIT won. They finished non-conference at 9-7, but only one of those nine wins was against a Division I team with a winning record, Boston University. They did, however, defeat Army (19-13 regular season and 9-9 in the Patriot League) and that same Boston U team (19-14, 11-7 in the Patriot) in the CIT by scores of 79-65 and 83-72.
They have a legit scorer in Damon Lynn, a junior guard who averaged 18.6 points per game this year. He's not afraid to jack up a three, leading the team with 10.1 attempts per game, with a percentage of .321.
The rebounding area causes the Highlanders some issues, as 6' 5" junior guard Tim Coleman leads the team with 7.3 board a game. 6'4" senior guard Ky Howard in second with 4.8. The Highlanders lack a real inside presence, as the team sports only four true forwards, three of which are underclassmen.
Height can be an issue, as there are only three players above 6'6", two sophomores and one freshman. One didn't play in a game and the other two averaged together 10 minutes per game. NJIT has been outrebounded by their opposition by just over one rebound per game. Their opponents have also logged 41 more blocks than they have.
Being a guard heavy team, they shoot free throws very well, making 488 out of 660, a .739 percent clip. The combo of Lynn, Coleman and Howard are the cog that drives this stat, as they all three have made over 100 free throws and make them at 76% or more.
As a team, they share the ball okay, getting 16 assists per contest. They also have 219 steals this year, 22 more than their opposition. Their assist to turnover ratio is predictably better as well, 1.24 to the 1.10 for the other guys.
At home, they sport an 11-6 record, including 2-0 in the CIT. For the season, they average just over 900 per game, or right around what the Mavericks averaged at Texas Hall the last 2.5 decades UTA played there. Against Army in the first round, they drew 855 and against Boston, they drew 1,134. I don't know much about the Estelle and Zoom Fleisher Athletic Center, other than what a Google search can teach anyone. It seats 1,500 to 1,600. 900 average would mean half to two-thirds capacity. Higher capacity means a higher noise level and generally harder place to play for opponents.
While I think the Highlanders are better than the Tigers of Savannah State, I do believe this is another winnable game for the Mavericks. UTA faces a team that plays the guard position well, which is their strength. With Kevin Hervey out, UTA has had to play more of a small ball game, and does it very well. Despite that, UTA, as I mentioned last post, is an outstanding rebounding team, which NJIT is decidedly not. If the Mavs can continue that, they will have a decided advantage on both ends of the court. That could come in really handy if the guards have a cold shooting night.
Eric Neal will be the deciding factor, I believe. If he controls the offense, as he's done most of the year, I have a sneaking suspicion the Mavericks will be the victors. That will mitigate what NJIT does well. Conversely, cause they do not play well inside, I'd expect Jorge Bilbao to have an impact in the game, particularly on the glass.
The time periods between games may play a factor. It will be over a week since the Mavs last played, and between then and Thursday, there certainly has been a lot of basketball played on the national stage. I hope Coach Cross has kept them focused in that time. The other factor to consider is all that time was spent not knowing who the Mavericks were going to draw next. Practice was run on fine-tuning what the Mavericks do, not on what NJIT does.
Of course, the same from last game still applies. The Mavericks have a couple of bad losses where they beat themselves. I like that the CIT gives the young players the forum to feel that pressure. So far they have responded. We'll see how they do Thursday at 6:30 PM.