Men's Basketball

UT Arlington in familiar position: Sun Belt spotlight

UT Arlington’s Kaelon Wilson, right, battles for the ball with St. Mary’s Calvin Hermanson. Diving for loose balls is a part of the Mavericks’ culture.
UT Arlington’s Kaelon Wilson, right, battles for the ball with St. Mary’s Calvin Hermanson. Diving for loose balls is a part of the Mavericks’ culture. AP

UT Arlington fifth-year senior guard Drew Charles has worn a small hole in the side of his right shoe as he jogs off the practice court at College Park Center for media availability.

The Azle native and “glue guy” has just finished a defensive drill that emphasizes changing to halting, choppy steps while approaching a ball-handler.

And yelling. Lots of yelling at the guy with the ball.

It doesn’t take much exposure to coach Scott Cross’ program to figure out that, though it may be the most frequently repeated word on campus, “toughness” is more than a talking point at UTA. It’s visible in Cross’ focus on tracking the number of times his team dives on the floor for the ball during a game.

It was visible on Dec. 8 when the Mavericks held then No. 12 St. Mary’s to a season-low 51 points and forced 16 Gaels turnovers in the first win over a Top 25 team in program history. And it’s visible in the way the intensity of UTA practice has Charles busting through his sneakers.

“Toughness is just the culture,” Charles said.

It was one of those tough culture moments in the first half at St. Mary’s that, though it wouldn’t show up in the box score, gave forward Kevin Hervey the sense that the Mavericks had the upset brewing.

“It was a loose ball and, looking at film you could see that two [St. Mary’s players] could have dived for the ball,” Hervey said. “But before they could get there, three of our guys fly in for it and get on the floor for it. We didn’t win that possession because the ball went out of bounds, but that’s when you could feel it, that we were the tougher team that night.”

Those kinds of moments have begun to pile up over the past season and a half, and some high-profile wins have followed. Last year it was back-to-back road wins at Ohio State and Memphis. This season, after stumbling to a 1-3 start with consecutive road losses at Minnesota, Florida Gulf Coast and Arkansas, the Mavericks got their first-ever win over Texas, in Austin, before raising even more eyebrows by not only winning at St. Mary’s but controlling the game throughout.

So here comes UTA (10-3), once again a mid-major apple in the eye of college basketball prognosticators as Sun Belt Conference play approaches. The Mavericks were picked to win the Sun Belt in the annual coaches’ poll, with Hervey, averaging 13.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, named the preseason player of the year.

By all accounts, UTA is comfortable having a bit of chatter surrounding the program. With the skins this team has hung on the wall over the last two seasons, these Mavericks aren’t sneaking up on anyone anymore.

“The buzz is great, but that’s not where our focus is. Because we’re focused on the right things, when the buzz does come around, we’re cool with it,” Hervey said. “Because our focus is on how hard we play every day, we don’t feel as much pressure ourselves against big-name teams. We get those wins, we can live in that moment a little bit because we know tomorrow when we wake up the focus is going to be the same it was today. So we read the headlines and we take pride in how hard we work.”

Hervey was a big reason UTA was in a similar situation a season ago, averaging 18.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game before tearing the ACL in his left knee in pregame warmups before a 91-64 home win against Arkansas State on Jan. 21. The Mavericks went 8-6 the rest of the regular season before bowing out of the Sun Belt tournament in the semifinals and going two rounds deep in the postseason tournament.

Cross said that Hervey is almost back to being 100 percent of the player he was before the ACL tear, after easing the junior into his workload. Hervey was on the floor for an average of 21.8 minutes in UTA’s first six games, versus 28.8 minutes per game in the team’s last seven, including 31 minutes in the win at Texas and a season-high 36 minutes in a 56-51 win at Bradley on Dec. 16.

“It’s helped a lot. It takes some of the pressure off [Hervey], and it makes you more difficult to guard as a team,” Cross said. “From a rebounding perspective he’s not all the way there yet. It’s just getting confidence in that knee in terms of blocking a guy out or crashing the offensive boards, and I think once he gets that, you’ll probably see his rebound numbers go from seven or eight to 10 or 12 a game pretty consistently.”

Hervey may have been rounding that corner as his coach spoke, because the Arlington Bowie graduate corralled 14 rebounds at Bradley and 13 more in UTA’s 80-77 win at Loyola Marymount on Thursday. That’s a good sign for the Mavericks, whose offensive efficiency is a step ahead of where it was a year ago.

Last season, UTA outworked opponents on the boards on its way to a 24-11 season. The Mavericks led the nation in total rebounds per game and took games away from opponents by out-possessing them. This year is a different story.

“As good as we’re playing defense, we’re giving up too many offensive rebounds and extra possessions,” Cross said. “Last year, we could shoot awful, but we pounded people on the boards, and then we turned them over way more, so we would have 15-20 more shots than opposing teams. We’re not getting that this year. The reason we’re winning this year is that we’re highly efficient offensively.”

It’s pieces like Charles (7.6 points per game, 46 percent 3-point shooting), Jalen Jones (12.7 points) and Erick Neal (9.9 points, 6.8 assists) in the backcourt that have evolved their own game and coalesced around the potential game-changer in Hervey to create an offensive machine that paces the Sun Belt in talent.

Charles, who is closer to his MBA than to the NBA, knows this team has the tools to put together a second conference championship and second NCAA Tournament berth in the Cross administration. He’s been talking about it ever since UTA lost to New Jersey Institute of Technology in the Tournament quarterfinals on March 24.

”The CIT’s a great tournament, and it was an awesome experience,” Charles said. “But the next day, we were setting our goals for this year, and that [an NCAA Tournament berth] was at the top of our list.”

The Mavericks will likely have to tough out a Sun Belt tournament championship in order to make that happen. Regular-season Sun Belt play begins Saturday, Dec. 31, when UTA hosts Coastal Carolina. Tipoff at College Park Center is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.

Matthew Martinez; 817-390-7760; @MCTinez817

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram