The UT Arlington Mavericks men’s basketball team has been building to this moment. This season could provide UTA with one of its most successful in school history. It begins at 7 p.m. Saturday against Loyola Marymount at College Park Center,
All the parts are in place. The senior experience — eight seniors on the roster, to be exact — the depth and the defense, and a star duo could propel the Mavs to their second NCAA Tournament appearance. The first came 10 seasons ago in 2008.
UTA won a school-record 27 games a season ago and reached the National Invitational Tournament quarterfinals. It was only the sixth 20-win season in program history and fourth under Scott Cross, who is in his 11th season coaching the Mavs.
“This is definitely a team that can win games in the NCAA tournament but you can’t win games unless you get there,” said Cross, whose team won the Sun Belt regular-season title but lost in the conference tournament semifinals. That loss kept them out of the NCAA tournament.
“It’s been a one-bid league for a while so if you come up short in that conference tournament your chances of getting there are slim and none,” Cross said. “So we have to be playing our best basketball that weekend in March.”
Cross is leaning on his two star seniors, forward Kevin Hervey and guard Erick Neal. Together, they could be the best one-two combination in the country.
“We’ve played together for four years and the chemistry we have is amazing,” said Neal, who attended Dallas Lincoln. “I kind of know where he’s going to be and what he’s going to do and vice versa.”
Arlington Bowie grad Hervey averaged 17.1 points and 8.5 rebounds as a junior. Neal averaged 10.6 points and 6.6 assists as a junior.”Right now, I think this team is ahead where last year’s team was,” Cross said. “We just have to get better defensively. I think that’s going be the biggest key. Can this team get to the point where they play great defense like last year’s team? If they do, then I think this team will go further than last year’s team. That’s what we’re working toward.”
His players seem to know that defense will take them as far as they want to go. The addition of 7-foot center Johnny Hamilton from Virginia Tech could provide the muscle and rebound edge the Mavs were missing a year ago.
“I’m a huge basketball junkie and I’ve watched the NCAA Tournament since I can remember,” said Hervey, who is 6-foot-9. “A lot of those Sweet 16 teams and Cinderella teams had a lot of older guys. I think having experience definitely helps you win games because you know you have that extra gear that younger teams might not have. We’re a confident group. I believe Erick and I are the best tandem in the country. We preach defense and toughness. Hopefully, that’ll be enough.”
Cross, who is the program’s all-time leader with 202 wins, hopes the Mavs can get off to a fast start to recapture some of the support that was on display during the NIT in March when crowds of 5,000 packed College Park Center. The defense, he said, is the key to his team’s success.
“You can’t always predict whether you’re going to hit shots but I think we have enough fire power that we can win games, even on an off night, if our guys are playing the defense they’re capable of playing,” he said. “I think we’re right there, we’re knocking on the door, I think there is a little bit of a buzz and we can get off to a good start. Who knows? We may be able to pack this place throughout the season and that would be awesome. It would be a huge home-court advantage. That would help us tremendously but I know for us to do that we have to win games early on.”