For the past few years under coach Scott Cross, UT Arlington developed a reputation as a stout defensive basketball team that forces you to beat them under pressure.Cross has typically defined his philosophy as putting a pit bull mindset into every player on the court. When asked how this year’s team is shaping up, Cross just took a deep breath.“We’re probably some Labradors right now,” he said. “We’ve got a ways to go.”It’s a loud statement coming from a coach who spent most of last season at the helm of one of the best defensive teams in the nation. The Mavericks finished 25th in the nation in defensive field-goal percentage, but spent a majority of the season in the top 10.Now in the Sun Belt Conference, their third conference in as many years, the Mavericks will be chasing a third consecutive postseason berth when they open Nov. 8 at Boise State.It won’t be easy to match what last year’s team did defensively, but Cross countered with his three point guards who have teammates and coaches buzzing. Four-year starter Shaquille White-Miller stands 5-foot-9 and remains the key cog in the Mavericks lineup, but the two newcomers, Reger Dowell from Oklahoma State and Lonnie McClanahan from Kilgore College, are primed to score points.White-Miller and senior forward Brandon Edwards both glowed when talking about McClanahan and how he’s impressed since Day One. McClanahan scored 12.4 points per game at Kilgore College, but Cross said his biggest asset is getting into the paint and drawing fouls.Dowell sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, and Cross considers him a prolific scorer.“It’s hard to teach guys how to score and make it easy; it’s a little bit easier to teach them how to defend and play the way you want them to,” Cross said. “We have the tough thing in place, now we just got to get their mindset right on the defensive end of the floor.”That’s a work in progress, especially considering one of the core concepts behind Cross’ defensive philosophy is getting taken from him. The NCAA instituted a new no-hand-check rule intended to make games higher scoring. UTA’s defense was built around bumping into bodies and getting a hand on the other guy. Now that those are essentially fouls, Cross said he’s had to rework their defensive mindset.“It has completely changed everything,” he said. “That’s the way we played defense, and it seemed to me that every great team was hand-checking and fouling. That’s why scoring was so low.”It’s something the entire college basketball world has to deal with, so Cross isn’t making any excuses. Instead, he’s figuring out how to replace senior forward Greg Gainey, whose status for the season is up in the air. Gainey was a bright spot for last year’s team, but he suffered a torn labrum during the off-season. UTA is taking it day-by-day with him, but it’s far from certain whether Gainey will even suit up this season.With or without Gainey, White-Miller has been down this road before. With questions about the defense, White-Miller is convinced the relentless mindset that defines UTA basketball hasn’t disappeared.“That’s not going to change,” White-Miller said. “As long as Coach Cross is the coach, that’s not going to change.”
Season opener: Nov. 8 at Boise St.
Home opener: Nov. 12 vs. Samford
Keightley Classic: Nov. 19 at Kentucky
Sun Belt opener: Jan. 2 vs. Arkansas St.
Final home game: March 1 vs. Western Kentucky