I don't know that I would have believed anyone that said the UT Arlington men's basketball team would be a game above .500 after the first five games of the Sun Belt season, but sure enough, that's where the Mavericks sat. I'm not necessarily upset with the loss as anyone outright expecting a perfect conference season is not living in reality, especially in how competitive this year's Sun Belt Conference appears to be. What frustrates me is how they lost, and maybe a little bit of who the losses were against.
I'll just get it out of the way now. I don't like losing to Texas State in any sport at any time. They can be world-beaters and we can be rebuilding and I still dislike the loss. But when it is the opposite and UTA lost...
UTA came in with an RPI rating of about 30 out of 351 Division I teams. The Bobcats, meanwhile, were ranked in the 300's. Yet if you watched, read about or in any way followed the 81-73 victory by the bad guys in San Marcos, you would have sworn the Bobcats were the preseason favorites.
UTA started slow, rebounded and entered the half trailing by one, first time they had been behind at the half this year. It seemed the Mavs would pull away early on, as they built an eight-point lead with three-and-a-half minutes gone, but the Bobcats performed like the Mavericks had so often this year and just took over, especially on defense. Their defense was sharper, their shot selection was more judicious and they overall looked like a Danny Kaspar team we were accustomed to seeing at Stephen F. Austin.
The biggest frustration was every time the Mav offense got going, the defense could not help and vice versa. UTA was able to chip away at the lead, but never get a good run to erase it. Yet, when Texas State need to get the stops, they did for the most part. They got the timely shots as well.
The Mavs kept hoisting the three-point shot, despite the cold shooting from behind the arc, 7-28, or 25%. Meanwhile Texas State made two less, but shot 15 less, ending with a 38.5% mark. This reminded me a lot of last year, especially after Hervey's injury. There comes a time when the shot isn't working and the offense needs to adjust. Either that, or there was just nothing inside and that's all they had. Either way, the offense looked off.
Individually, I was surprised to see Erick Neal with three assists against eight turnovers. Despite his 14 points, it was an uncharacteristically bad game for the junior point guard.
While it stinks to lose to the Texas-rival, it can always be chalked up to the rivalry factor. The next game, however, could not.
In a road contest against Troy the following Saturday, the Trojans looked in control from start to finish, a very concerning trend that seemed to be festering for a bit prior to the game. Now some will be quick to say Hervey sat out with his knee a little shaky, but I say the Mavericks have enough talent to beat the Trojans any day without him. He is a key player, a bona fide star, but that doesn't mean Neal, Jalen Jones, Kaelon Wilson, Drew Charles or Jorge Bilbao are any slouches. Even guys coming off the bench have the ability to contribute big. Yet against Troy, they looked unable to compete.
I get that Troy presents challenges, especially when they shoot well, which they did. But UTA should have so many ways to score and play defense that when one thing isn't working, they can shift gears and find the next one.
Like they did versus Texas State, UTA was dreadful shooting from three-point land. They made four of their shots on 25 attempts, a measly 16 percent. The Trojans meanwhile where 17 of 31 for an astounding percentage of almost 55 percent. At one point, UTA was a national leader in three-point defense, but seemingly over night, they looked unable to do anything as their opponents made a combined 22 three's on 44 attempts.
The score ended up 93-71, and there were times it didn't even seem that close. I felt the UTA offense was rushed, as they were/are unaccustomed to playing from behind, which fed the Trojan offense. Unlike most of the year, Troy controlled the tempo and forced the Mavericks to play their style.
UTA, which rebounded so effectively last year, especially on the offensive end, could not find the offensive boards, which helps to mitigate some of those misses. That may be where more of the inconsistency stems from on this team. The Mavs are currently 13-0 when they out-rebound their opponents. Conversely, they are 2-5 when they don't.
For the second time this year, UTA was in a losing streak. A showdown with South Alabama, a nationally televised road game on ESPN2, was on the horizon. Once again, UTA started slow. As they had in the past two games, UTA entered halftime trailing. But, unlike the previous two loss, UTA went on a huge run and pulled away to a 16-point lead. A few missed free throw attempts late made the score look closer than it should have been and UTA pulled to an 89-83 win, snapping their two-game losing streak.
The thing that I liked best was the Jaguars in the first half were playing like Texas State and Troy had done, forced the Mavericks into their style. The second half, which was shaky at times this season, was a different story and it looked like UTA pushed the tempo, got their opponent out of rhythm and were able to take a victory out of the contest. Bilbao dominated underneath - with 17 points and 13 rebounds - which allowed other team members to play a little wide open. I think that was one of the big differences. His play underneath allowed the open shots to be found on a greater rate by his teammates.
UTA carried that momentum into a home contest with ULM. The Warhawks have a good chance to be competitor as they have the talent. But, they lack depth right now and only eight players logged minutes in the game, compared to 13 players for UTA, with ten logging double digits. ULM looked tired at the end, which allowed UTA a 19-2 run to end the game, 71-55.
The home-stand ended with the Ragin Cajuns of Louisiana. In one of the most complete basketball games I have seen in a good while, UTA won 108-71 against a very good team that had the second-best non-conference record in the Sun Belt Conference. UTA shot 57 percent from the field, better than 40 percent from three-point territory, out-rebounded the Cajuns 52-36 and had all 13 players who logged minutes score. UTA went into the half with a 40-31 lead, helped in part by shooting nearly 40 percent from the three, but UTA opened the second half with a 13-2 run and never looked back. It helps that their shots were falling, but their tempo looked fast, steady and consistent.
They simply out-hustled the Cajuns. One of the plays of the game was Neal forcing a Cajun to lose possession of the basketball, race around the player who gave up on the ball pick it up inches from the baseline and start a fast break that resulted in points. That kind of hustle is exactly why UTA should always be competitive in any game, regardless of shot percentage. Tough guys take the stairs and it was apparent in that game and that play in particular. UTA had broke 100 in four years and it came at a great time.
Still the damage may be done. The losses to Troy and Texas State have done all but eliminate UTA from at-large considerations into the NCAA tournament. UTA has risen to 55 in the RPI rankings. Solid bubble teams are going to be in the 40's. Not that I want to leave it up to a selection committee to get in, but it sure would be nice to have taken care of business and made it a hard decision to be snubbed. On the other side of that thought, might be more motivation to UTA that they have to win their conference tournament to get in, so there may be a silver lining.
The RPI won't rise much this weekend, regardless of the outcome as UTA travels to Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina. Both schools are in the 200's. However, UTA has a chance to put some distance and get an outright tiebreaker with the Chanticleers, who are one game back of UTA's 5-2 SBC record.
In the SBC standings, UTA trails Georgia Southern, who has managed a perfect 7-0 mark to this point. Georgia State and Arkansas State sit in a tie for second with UTA.
There's a lot of parity in the league this year, and it should be a wild ride to March. For Maverick faithful, the hope is the team keeps the consistency they've shown in the past three games going.