Monday, May 1, 2017

Greatest Team Ever

Notice there is no question mark in the title. The 2016/17 UT Arlington men's basketball team was the most talented and accomplished in the history of the program. Yes, all UTA fans are sad that the team could not get into the NCAA tournament, but that by no means is the sole headline of the season.

There were several things that stick out about the year, not the least of which was the first time UTA won multiple games in the postseason, as well as won a game in the NIT. Not to take anything away from the CIT win last year, but the NIT is a more prestigious tournament, against supposedly-tougher competition. There’ll be more on that in a minute.

As a refresher, I consider the 1980/1981 team to have been the best at UTA. My list is subjective of course, as there is no way to actually quantify it, but I have received mild backlash on my pick. Many say the 2008 team that made the NCAA tournament should be included. I’ve also heard the 2004 and 2012 teams that won conference championships should be ahead.

But I don’t rank them higher for one simple reason, the level of competition. In the early 1980’s, the Southland Conference was one of the premier “mid-major” (I hate that term, since it is all Division I), as the league boasted sweet sixteen runs and nationally competitive teams. For UTA to finish second, tied with Louisiana Tech and a game behind Lamar, was a greater accomplishment than beating the teams UTA did in a watered-down Southland in the 2000’s. On top of it, that team received an at-large invitation to the NIT. While we could debate the merits of UTA receiving an NCAA tournament at-large invitation, no UTA team has received an at-large to either tournament except in 1981.

This year’s team added some solid credentials that no team at UTA can lay claim to, cementing the 2016/17 team as the best Rebel/Maverick squad. They beat the number 12 team in the country with a convincing 65-51 win over Saint Mary’s on December 8. Beating a ranked team was a first. They won a regular season title in the Sun Belt Conference for the first time in four tries. The Sun Belt now is closer to that the SLC was in the early ‘80’s than what the SLC had turned into. They sported an undefeated record at home during the regular season, a first at UTA. The regular season attendance was second highest in UTA history, and didn’t have the benefit of a marquee team like North Texas or a power-5 conference school. Then there’s also the matter of 27 wins, three wins better than any previous team had earned.

And as mentioned, they won their first NIT game, en route to another. They also hosted an NIT game, and showed that UTA fans can turn out for big games at College Park Center. Against Akron, a season high 5,390 showed up as UTA won. That followed with a second-highest on-campus attendance ever of 6,336 against Cal State-Bakersfield, the first loss at College Park Center all year. You can’t convince me that had Jalen Jones not been injured, that the Mavericks wouldn’t have advanced to New York City.

The first inkling of disappointment came in the conference tournament. Jones had inured his hand in the opening game and his absence was notable. Many times this year when UTA looked flat, Jones was able to provide the spark needed to fuel a run. But Texas State, for the second time in three years, ended UTA’s run in the SBC tournament.

By the way, I want no one to claim again that there isn’t a real rivalry between the Mavs and ‘cats. Games that mean something build a rivalry and last year, UTA ended their season. The geographical closeness and the fact that each team is the other’s longest, continuous conference opponent only furthers that rivalry.

Despite the exit from the SBC tourney, UTA was guaranteed a spot in the NIT by virtue of its regular season title. UTA was seeded sixth, (really…?) and had to travel on the road to face the BYU Cougars.

It is hard to tell when a school like UTA plays a "name" team like BYU just what opponent the “smaller” school will get. A P5 conference team that plays in the NIT has had a disappointing year, as they aren't in the top 6-10 schools in their conference that made the NCAA Tournament. While BYU is not a P5 school, they have a name, following and expectations that put them near the same category. UTA dominated almost from the start and put the thing on cruise control. In all the Maverick games I have watched in almost two decades, it was single-handed the most dominating game ever. I say that because they never looked threatened, it was against a good 20+ win team and it was in the postseason.

The NIT was full of upsets (I don’t believe they were upsets, but just a general trend of overrating the P5 schools with a higher seed), and one of those upsets allowed UTA to host the Akron Zips, a seventh seeded team that beat the Houston Cougars in Houston.

The game was a similar storyline that I saw against BYU as the Zips never really challenged UTA. That win set-up a similar scenario where the eighth-seeded Bakersfield team came to Arlington.
Even in a loss to Bakersfield loss, there were positive signs, particularly in the second half. After a close start to the game, Bakersfield took the lead and never looked back, building as much as a 20-point lead early in the second, but then UTA began chipping away, but never seemed in control. Erick Neal made two quick three-point shots to bring UTA within two points with just under half a minute remaining in the game, but that would be as close as the Mavs got.

It was a bummer of a way to finish the year, but the foundation is set for 2017/18. There are some seniors that will need to be replaced, and there are question marks on who can man the interior with Jorge Bilbao now a UTA alum. But Kevin Hervey said after the game that he will be back for his senior season. Combined with the prowess of point guard Neal, UTA has a solid foundation to build on.

I also believe that the loss to Bakersfield will build fuel to the fire for UTA’s drive into next season. If Mav fan dreams come true, this team’s reign as the greatest ever will be short-lived.

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