Sports

UTA men hope to make second NCAA Tournament

UT Arlington's most special men's basketball season was denied a footnote in the history books when the Mavericks' bid to become the first SLC team to go undefeated ended with loss to UT San Antonio.

And, to coach Scott Cross, that's all good.

The Mavericks' journey to this point has been marked by achievement worth noting. Most notably, of course, is the opening of the team's new arena, the College Park Center, a school-best 15-game winning streak and a regular-season conference championship.

The objective, though, has always been to be second. That is, the second team in school history to advance to the NCAA Tournament. There's only one way to get there: win this week's Southland Conference Tournament championship.

Saturday's loss might have been the most important step in realizing the goal.

"They were disappointed of course, we all wanted that perfect season," Cross said. "That is something no one could have taken from us.

"At the same time I had some concerns that if we did go 16-0, we might have just kind of waltzed our way into the tournament ..."

With a feeling of invincibility.

Sports is littered with examples of the dangers of hubris and feelings of invincibility and resulting long, hard falls.

"The intensity definitely changes in the conference tournament and our guys, to be honest, needed a wake-up call," Cross said.

The Mavericks open tournament play Wednesday as the tournament's No. 1 seed against No. 8 Nicholls State at 6 p.m. at the Leonard E. Merrell Center in Katy.

Tournament semifinals are set for Friday, and the championship game will be played at 2 p.m. Saturday, televised by ESPN2.

Cross feels good about his team's chances to be in and triumph in the title game.

Chief among the reasons are guys who can score, the high-quality of leadership senior LaMarcus Reed provides, a keen ability to stay in games -- such as Saturday when the Mavericks cut an 18-point deficit to four with a minute to go -- and a belief that his team will turn around a recent defensive slide.

More defensive stops is Cross' prescription for making Katy simply a stopping point on the way to the tournament.

The Mavericks in the past five games have reversed a season-long trend of holding teams to under 40 percent shooting from the field. UTSA shot 54.7 percent in Saturday's game. And that followed games in which Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Northwestern State and McNeese all shot better than 47 percent.

That's a recipe for disappointment, Cross said.

"Our field-goal percentage defense has not been where we want it to be," Cross said. "That's been a cause of concern. For us to win the conference tournament we've got to play great defense, holding teams to a low percentage from the field, and then we've got to do a good job on the boards."

UTA will continue to need the contributions of leading rebounder Jordan Reves and Kevin Butler, the team's third-leading scorer who averages about six rebounds a game.

The competition in Katy is expected to be good. After starting the SLC schedule with blowout victories over Southeastern Louisiana, Nicholls State and Sam Houston State, UTA's average margin of victory of the next 12 games was seven points, and that includes a 20-point victory over Texas State on Feb. 11.

Good cases can be made for the chances of at least three other teams, in addition to UTSA. Stephen F. Austin has won five consecutive games, McNeese State played the Mavericks close on the road, and Lamar is loaded with offensive talent, including leading scorers Mike James and Anthony Miles, and the Cardinals are battled tested with nonconference road games against Louisville, Ohio State and Kentucky.

All that is irrelevant if the Mavericks do what they need to do, Cross said.

The consolation prize is a trip to the NIT, which UTA clinched by winning the SLC regular-season championship.

But that's not the goal.

"The intensity is about to completely change," Cross said. "The loss to UTSA helped our chances of going to the NCAA Tournament.

"I like our group. I think we've got a bunch of guys who can score the basketball, which you need this time of year, and I think we've got high-character guys who will pick up the intensity."

Shoot, no

UT Arlington has held opponents to 40.8 percent from the field this season, and that includes the past five games in which the Mavericks have slipped a little.

Opponent

Pct.

Result

UT San Antonio

54.7

L, 97-88

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

47.1

W, 73-64

Northwestern State

48.0

W, 79-70

McNeese State

47.1

W, 93-89

Weber State

43.4

L, 72-70

  Comments