Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Now They Are What We Thought They Were

The UT Arlington men's basketball team sure has been making noise lately. If you look to this blog as your sole source of UTA news, you probably missed the part where the Mavs beat the UT-Austin Longhorns for the first win against the burnt orange in school history on November 29. They followed that up with a road win against regional rival North Texas, the fourth win in a row and ninth in 11 tries in that series. That was followed up with a solid, all-around win against Division III UT-Dallas. Then on Thursday, UTA traveled to Saint Mary's, ranked 12th at the time, and beat the Gaels for the first ranked win in school history.

Early in the season, I expressed concerns about not finishing out games after outstanding starts. To this point, UTA has not trailed at halftime yet this year. In the the three losses, they looked bad in the second half and in some of the wins, they did just enough to win.

But that Texas game was the start of a trend where UTA looks like they can play basketball for a full 40 minutes. They got behind early, but used a 10-0 run to close the first half and take a three-point lead. Another 8-0 run to start the second gave UTA a quick double-digit lead. The teams would essentially play even at that point until the final buzzer, giving the Mavericks a 72-61 win.

Afterwards it was entertaining for two reasons for me. One, to see the jubilation from the Maverick faithful. The other was to see the meltdown from the other side.

The joy I'm sure I need no explaining. But on the other side, it is amazing to me the people who really have no clue how sports work. Some people were calling this a bad loss for UT Austin.

Ignore the fact that no loss is really good, per se. In their mind, there's no such thing as parity and only big name teams win. One even said with the Longhorns budget ($11 mil + for men's basketball), they should never lose to a team like UTA ($1.4 mil). I guess if you over pay for a coach, that means he wins. How'd Charlie Strong work out in that regard? I guess in their minds the millions a coach makes the difference between missed and made shots.

I don't care what kind of recruiting budget advantage a team has, that doesn't mean other teams can't find talent either.

Take Kevin Hervey. He could have easily gone to a "better school." But teams didn't want to take a chance on his torn ACL during his senior year of high school. Does that mean a Big 12 school should have known he'd make a solid recovery because their recruiting budget is higher? Their coach gets paid higher?

Of course, that also ignores the fact that UTA also has its own advantages, not the least of which is a high quality education in a large region. That alone has been attracting athletes for all sports for decades.

There's an old saying of that's why you play the games. The athletic season would be quite boring if you pieced together a schedule and said okay, let's compare budgets to find the winner.

That alone is what makes this win even more special for me. I've always been a fan of the underdog when I have no dog in the fight. The Longhorns budget is astronomically large, meaning there's almost no scenario where I root for them.

Oh, and by the way, one of the few schools to compete with the Austin athletic budget is Ohio State. Anyone remember anything special regarding the Buckeyes and Mavericks recently?

The subsequent game was the shortest road trip UTA will have all season as they traveled north to face the Mean Green of North Texas. UTA was in control the whole way, save a few minutes to end the first half. I always enjoy beating the Dentonites in any sport, but wish there was more competition in this series. Since the series renewed, UTA has been in control. UTA has won all but two of the nine games since 2006 and the two losses were by a combined six points.

I do find some irony in that the UNT basketball program said for years after their exodus from the Southland that there would be nothing gained by playing UTA. They weren't world beaters and never really contended for an at-large berth or anything like that. Yet, here's UTA making noise, garnering national attention and seriously contending for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament, and not a peep from UTA about canceling the series. Despite UNT's lack of real competitiveness lately, there is so much more to this series than an RPI builder. UTA recognizes that and appreciates the rivalry for what it is.

It was the following game against UT-Dallas that really started me to believe that UTA had got this thing figured out. In the other non D-I game, UTA won the second half 41-40, but the Mavs dominated the Comets from start to finish as well. Beating Texas and North Texas doesn't surprise me much, as those are teams that aren't hard to get up for. Doing it against a guarantee game can be, but there was no let down in a 99-49 win.

That set the stage for a trip to the West Coast and Saint Mary's, ranked number 11 in the USA Today Coaches poll. After a brief back-and-forth affair to start, UTA took control and held a double-digit lead for roughly 30 minutes. It was a marvelous, well-played, well-coached game that earned a win over a ranked team, the first time in the history of the UTA men's basketball program. The same feeling Maverick fans had after the UT Austin game was renewed after this one.

It boosted the Mavs national profile as well. They bumped up to number three in the mid-major top 25, trailing only stalwarts Gonzaga and Wichita State. And for what I think is likely another first in program history, UTA received a vote in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

The impressive thing about the Saint Mary's game wasn't the win, but how they won. The Mavs maintained a sizable lead for the final thirty minutes, The Gaels had won 23 of their last 24 home games, yet UTA walked out with a controlling 14-point win. The defense was just outstanding. SMC was second in the NCAA in shooting percentage at 53 percent. Yet, a scrappy D held them to a season-low 31 percent. The rebounding, such a strength last year but hit-or-miss this season, was in UTA's favor at 36-30.

It's a common adage in basketball that the team that rebounds and plays defense will come out on top. UTA did exactly that against the upper echelon of the NCAA. St. Mary's is still in the top 20 this week, despite the loss.

After a layoff of over a week, Maverick hit the road again, this time at Bradley on Friday Dec. 16 at 7 pm. After that, they head back to California to play Loyola Marymount, another West Coast Conference school, for a Thursday game. Tipoff is at 9 pm.

Bottom line, this is exactly the UTA team we had hoped to see at the beginning of the season. My worst fear was that they wouldn't figure out how to play until conference play, eliminating the chance to gain national exposure and compete for a national title. After my first entry, I'm very happy to eat crow.

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