Scoring 62 points and shooting 63.4 percent in a half might not be something UT Arlington can put in a bottle and save for later.
But certain elements of the offensive efficiency UTA displayed in its 105-89 win at BYU in the first round of the NIT are repeatable. As far back as nonconference play, coach Scott Cross said that the Mavericks’ offensive firepower is what carries the team this season.
And it starts with point guard Erick Neal, whose 13 assists at BYU matched a career high and were one shy of the single-game all-time mark in NIT play. Neal has dished 6.6 assists per game this season, the sixth best mark in the nation, and sits second all time in assists at UTA with a season left to play.
When the defense collapses, we’re wide open. He makes it an easy game.
UTA guard Kaelon Wilson on point guard Erick Neal
“That to me really makes our offense go. When [Neal is] moving the ball like that, we have enough weapons where we can be really difficult to guard,” Cross said. “With him getting by guys and distributing the way he was, easily we can shoot 50 percent or higher on a consistent basis.”
UTA has hummed along at 46.2 percent shooting for the season, with Neal’s hands on the ball more than anyone else’s.
“He’s extremely quick, so he’s by his man one or two steps and into the middle,” guard Kaelon Wilson said. “When the defense collapses, we’re wide open. He makes it an easy game.”
Wilson, a member of the same junior class as Neal and star forward Kevin Hervey, was inserted into UTA’s starting lineup after senior Jalen Jones went down late with a hand injury in the Mavericks’ 74-51 win over Coastal Carolina in the Sun Belt Conference quarterfinals.
After managing seven points on just 1-of-6 shooting in UTA’s semifinal loss to Texas State, Cross predicted “a better Kaelon Wilson in the NIT than we saw in the Sun Belt.”
Wilson hit his first three jumpers at BYU on his way to 18 points in the first half and a season-high 20 on 8-of-11 shooting.
Hervey said that Wilson has the quickest first step on the team.
“It’s just confidence,” Wilson said. “I was extremely comfortable, having played behind guys like Drew Charles and Jalen Jones. The senior leadership we have molds you for that moment.”
Both BYU and Akron get big chunks of their offense from a premier big man.
But the Mavs will find themselves defending a very different player in Akron center Isaiah Johnson (6-foot-10, 290) than they dealt with in BYU power forward Eric Mika (6-10, 230).
Johnson, a true back-to-the-basket center, averages 16.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and is surrounded in the Zips’ one-in, four-out offensive look by four pure shooters almost at all times.
“To be honest, it’s almost identical to defending St. Mary’s,” Cross said. “Four Drew Charles-type shooters, but instead of a big man who’s one of the best in the pick-and-roll, this guy is almost a miniature version of Shaq in the paint. One of the best back-to-the-basket guys we have seen all season.”
Against BYU, the Mavericks slowed Mika by sending help off the Cougars’ third-best shooter in the second half. The sophomore scored just six of his 29 points in the second half against the Mavs, but Cross said that type of help defense may not be an option against Akron.
To be honest, it’s almost identical to defending St. Mary’s.
UTA coach Scott Cross on Akron’s one-inside, four-outside offense with a true center inside
“They have four perimeter guys a lot of the time on the floor that are about 35 percent 3-point shooters,” Cross said. “So it’s hard to pick one to come off of. We still have to take their driving lanes away, but we just have to close out on the shooters as quickly as possible.”
Preparing for the second round of NIT play, everyone’s focus resides squarely in the now.
But Hervey, who averages 17.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game after a somehow-quiet 22 and eight at BYU, is one of the few Mavericks whose present and long-term future could be on a basketball court. He said Friday that he hadn’t made up his mind about coming back for his senior season or declaring for the NBA draft.
“I really have no idea. If we win a championship, I’ll probably want to come back,” Hervey said. “If we don’t win a championship, I’ll probably want to come back. I just want to be the best me I can be, whether that’s going after this year, or staying.”
If we win a championship, I’ll probably want to come back. If we don’t win a championship, I’ll probably want to come back.
UTA junior forward Kevin Hervey on his draft-status decision
In 13 home games at College Park Center this season, UTA has averaged 2,268 in attendance. Cross and UTA spokesman Richard Kilwien said the athletic staff is expecting the biggest crowd of season against Akron on Monday.
The Mavericks pulled a season-high 4,522 into the arena for the season opener, an 89-82 win over Texas Southern, which lost to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 64 Friday.
Some sections closer to midcourt on the second level of College Park Center were two-thirds taken by Friday afternoon.
Matthew Martinez; 817-390-7760; @MCTinez817