While UT Arlington has virtually no momentum heading into this week’s Sun Belt Tournament, coach Scott Cross remembers a similar situation in 2008 turning out pretty well.
Having lost five of the last seven games of the regular season, Cross led his seventh-seeded Mavericks to the Southland Conference championship and earned the only NCAA Tournament berth in UTA history.
And although this year’s team lost five of its last seven games, the Mavericks secured a No. 5 seed. Without their top two defenders, they’ll open the tournament shorthanded against Texas State at 5 p.m. Thursday in the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans.
“We’ve got to fly around defensively and be as active as possible in the tournament,” Cross said. “An organized chaos.”
They’ll need to do something considering they haven’t beaten a winning team since Feb. 7. Following that win, they lost Johnny Hill (wrist) and Drew Charles (hand) to season-ending surgeries. For a team that began the year 14-9, things just haven’t been the same ever since.
Up until that point, UTA held opponents to 69.1 points per game on under 40-percent shooting. But without their defensive nucleus, they’ve surrendered 78.2 points per game and a 44.9-percent shooting clip.
Even though the Mavericks are the third-highest scoring team in the Sun Belt, they haven’t been able to get the stops they need to close out games. Cross will rely on his seniors to apply their postseason experience to this weekend.
That starts with Lonnie McClanahan and Jamel Outler. Averaging 14.8 points over the last eight games as the primary ballhandler, McClanahan earned all-Sun Belt recognition. He’s gotten help from the streaky Outler, UTA’s long-range sniper who’s scoring 16 per game in his last five games.
They’ll also have Greg Gainey back, who missed the last game with a knee injury.
Fortunately, the Mavericks drew Texas State (13-16, 7-13 SBC), a team they haven’t lost to since 2011. Having dropped 11 of their last 14 games, the Bobcats finished ninth in the Sun Belt but earned a berth since Appalachian State is ineligible for postseason play. Emani Gant earned All-Sun Belt honors with 12.6 points and seven rebounds per game and leads the Bobcats in both categories.
The road only gets tougher after that. Louisiana-Lafayette and Georgia State line up in UTA’s side of the bracket. UTA is 1-8 against both teams over the last two years. But having earned a conference tournament berth in eight of his nine years at the helm, Cross has a conference title and plenty of postseason experience under his belt. His teams have won the opening game in three straight years.
“Once you win that first game, you’ve got as much of a shot as anyone else,” Cross said. “It just comes down to whoever’s ready to play that day.”
Sun Belt Tournament
Thursday-Sunday, New Orleans
UTA vs. Texas State, 5 p.m. Thursday
Radio: KHVN 970 AM