Men's Basketball

Sustained success the next challenge for UT Arlington basketball

A pattern is emerging at UT Arlington.

In 2008, the Mavericks reached the NCAA Tournament in coach Scott Cross’ second year. In 2012, they won a school-record 24 games, captured the Southland Conference and advanced to the NIT for the first time in 31 years. In the past two years, they’ve won 51 games, made consecutive postseason appearances and just completed the first meaningful postseason run in program history.

Four years separated one high-water mark from the next. Then it was another four or five before another peak.

But this time, the peak juts a little higher in terms of wins (27) and, it’s more sustainable. At least that’s the rarefied air at which Cross is aiming.

“To be a top-50 program year in and year out, I would consider that a mid-major power,” Cross said after Wednesday’s season-ending 80-76 loss to Cal State Bakersfield in the NIT quarterfinals. “It’s just one year. We’ve got to figure out how to keep it at that level. That is a dream and a goal of mine is to get to that level.”

UTA (27-9) was ranked 45th in this season’s final RPI rankings. The Sun Belt regular-season title the Mavs won this year came in a conference ranked 13th in conference RPI, quite a step up from the Southland, the Mavs’ former conference, which clocks in at either 26 or 27, depending on the numbers used.

The work to sustain and improve on that mark begins Friday, Cross said. He gave himself Thursday off, thank you very much.

Though the Mavericks are losing four players Cross calls “the heart and soul” of their two-year run, it appears their two most talented players will return. Kevin Hervey said after Wednesday’s season-ending loss that he plans to return for his senior season next year, which is also point guard Erick Neal’s senior season.

Hervey battled swelling in his left knee at times this season after he tore his ACL as a sophomore. Neal, if he stays at the pace of his past two seasons, is likely to break the UTA career assists record (650) around the midway point of next season.

“I’ll look at the season as a whole and walk away from it, not satisfied, but I’ll be OK, because we did something we’ve never done before,” Hervey said. “The type of coach [Cross] is, he won’t let us be OK with that. He won’t let us be satisfied. As a season — as a whole, it was all right. But we won’t settle for anything like this next year. We want to go to the NCAA Tournament.”

An inopportune injury to Jalen Jones, the team’s second-leading scorer, in the Sun Belt Tournament quarterfinals might have kept the Mavs from realizing that dream this year. But Cross would like to see something of a return to UTA’s 2015-16 form, in terms of rebounding and toughness.

And he is looking to Hervey, the conference’s player of the year.

“I think he could lead the country in rebounding if he decides that’s what he wants to do,” Cross said. “It’ll be a point of emphasis for us this summer and into the fall.”

Hervey, an Arlington Bowie grad, averaged 17.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, and his success has Cross and his coaching staff looking for recruits in the Hervey mold.

Cross drew the Hervey comparison to three of the four members of his recruiting class: Tim Holland, a 6-8 forward out of Cedar Ridge; Davion Turner, a 6-9 junior college transfer from Hill College and Cedar Hill; and 6-7 White Settlement Brewer grad Pedro Castro.

“We need guys who can pass, dribble and shoot,” Cross said. “But also a guy with more size and length.”

That sounds familiar. Now, Cross and Co. need that recipe to continuously bear the fruits of success that UTA has been sowing under his watch.

Matthew Martinez; 817-390-7760; @MCTinez817

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