Sunday, April 17, 2016

End of the Road

What a season it was. I know it has been a while since the mens basketball season ended on March 24th to now. Apologies for that as I felt a bit withdrawn after the NJIT loss, a school that I believe UT Arlington would beat five more times if they played five games. More than anything, it was the big lead that turned into a loss that had me in retreat.

But make no mistake, the season was a resounding success. For the first time I can remember, UTA had a great season, but it is a foundational one as well, giving optimism to next season. The future is brighter than ever.

The Mavs tied a program high for wins in a year with 24. The last time that was accomplished was in 2011/12 when the Mavericks claimed their first outright Southland Conference championship in their last year in the conference they founded almost 50 years earlier. Their 13 wins in conference play was the most since that 11/12 season too.

The team only loses two seniors, Courtney Austin and Kennedy Eubanks. While they were players of character and good teammates, the two combined for eight starts and 50 games played (out of a possible of 70) in 2015/16. Nick Pallas, who served as a very capable reserve big man, has announced he's transferring out of the program.

Eric Neal returns next year and I believe he could be the most important piece. The all-conference point guard is the best Maverick I've ever seen at that position. Now granted, I've never saw Ronnell Peters or Ricky Leggett in the early 1980's or Glover Cody in the early 1990's. I did, however, see Josh Daniels, Brady Dawkins and Shaq White-Miller. Those guys were good. Neal is on another level.

I'm also excited to see what Jorge Bilbao does in his senior season. When Kevin Hervey, who averaged 9.8 rebounds before he went down with an ACL tear, was sidelined, it was Bilbao more than anyone else responsible for UTA's prowess as a rebounding team, top rebounding squad in the NCAA's Division I ranks. He led the team in total rebounds (247) and was second in rebounds per game (7.1).

The thing that impressed me most was just how stable this team was. Four players started 33 games or more. Really, Kaelon Wilson stepped into the starting role after Hervey's injury. Drew Charles and Jalen Jones kept the tempo up on offense and played really solid defense.

The irony is the biggest question mark for next season may come in the form Kevin Hervey, whom many consider UTA's best, or maybe most valuable, player. The aforementioned injury was a setback for the year, unquestionably. While the ability to recover from that injury has improved markedly over the last decade, the issue for me is how much will it take to A) get him back to where he was prior to the injury and B) how much/will he be able to improve as he becomes a junior from a sophomore.

The second point of contention is what to do when Jorge Bilboa needs a rest. UTA was already a smaller club in some respects when Pallas was relieving him. I guess, baring some new player, Faith Pope or Nathan Hawkins fills that role. One thing I've noticed in the ten years Coach Scott Cross has been at the helm is the lack of bigs both coming here and staying when they do get here.

But in all reality, those are very minor things. It's not like we are trying to figure out what to do with out Marquez Haynes or LaMarcus Reed.

Lastly, there was an excitement generated about the program that I have never felt. It was really apparent that I was not the only one to feel it. One of the bigger things to happen in my opinion from this season was the butts in seats and the following the program is building.

In 1980/81, the year UTA made its first postseason appearance with an at-large invitation to the NIT, the Mavs set an attendance record with an average of 2,291 fans per game. The record for total attendance in one season came in 2012/13 with 29,524, thanks in part to UTA's first CIT bid.

This year, both records were obliterated. 43,318 total folks filed into College Park Center and the Mavs averaged 2,888 per game. I said at the beginning of the season that the schedule was poised to break record and sure enough, it wasn't even close. The team's performance guaranteed the results. 13-2 record at home was the best since the 2011/12's 12-1 mark. Their winning percentage of 87 was also the second highest home mark in program history. Win in front of a full house and people will return.

This was the first time I can remember that we finished the season with great results and it is the next season that really has me buzzing. Is it November yet?

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