Men's Basketball

UT Arlington men’s coach enters contract year with talented roster

UT Arlington basketball coach Scott Cross is the only winning coach in program history.
UT Arlington basketball coach Scott Cross is the only winning coach in program history. Star Telegram

Scott Cross is undoubtedly the most successful coach in the history of UT Arlington basketball.

He’s the only coach who has won more games than he has lost. He’s taken UTA to the postseason three times in nine years after the program only reached the postseason once in the 46 years before he took over.

But as he enters his contract year following four years of mediocrity, there’s an ominous question looming over him and the team.

Has he done enough?

To understand why that’s not enough to guarantee his job security, one must recognize that at a university without football, basketball is the flagship sport.

When the university spent $78 million to build College Park Center in 2012, it didn’t do it so the basketball team could go .500 every year. With a WNBA franchise moving into the building and the women’s team primed for a big season, Cross’ program has stalled out at 50-46 since opening the new arena with a 24-9 season in 2011-12.

Not bad, just average.

“I expect to win,” Cross said. “When you don’t win, it rips your soul out. There’s nothing on the outside that can make it any worse or better for me. If I had a 50-year contract and we lost a game, I’d feel the same way. If they said you have to win this game or you’re gone, I’m still going to feel the same way.”

Cross is fortunate to have one of the most talented rosters he’s had since he took over in 2006.

There’s a healthy mix of sophomores and juniors, all of whom have played a significant number of minutes. With only two seniors and two freshmen on the roster, Cross chose to supplement his four talented sophomores with tall, athletic junior-college transfers.

It’s exciting and scary at the same time. It’s scary because seniors all know it’s their last chance so they have a little more at stake.

UT Arlington coach Scott Cross

“The exciting part is that no matter what we accomplish this year, the expectations are going to be even higher because we’re returning everybody next year,” Cross said.

The youth movement began last year with the arrival of four players, led by Kevin Hervey, an Arlington Bowie forward who Cross contends is the most talented player he’s coached. Hervey led all underclassmen with 7.1 points and six rebounds a game and got better down the stretch.

Erick Neal and Kaelon Wilson showed flashes of being all-conference quality players.

At point guard, Neal is a quick, flashy, highlight-reel player adept at making plays. Highly touted out of Dallas Lincoln, he led the team in steals and averaged three assists in only 18 minutes per game.

Wilson, who came from Lancaster, led the team in blocks despite his 6-foot-2 stature. Cross said Wilson improved his 3-point shot during the off-season. Julian Harris came off the bench and shot 46.2 percent from 3-point range in limited minutes last season.

UTA has road games at Ohio State (Nov. 20), Memphis (Nov. 23) and Texas (Dec. 1)

Juniors Drew Charles and Jorge Bilbao have gotten better since they arrived at UTA. Charles led the Sun Belt in 3-point percentage before going down with a season-ending injury late last season. A tireless worker, Charles is the leader of the locker room.

The arrival of rangy transfers Nathan Hawkins, Faith Pope, Mairega Clarke and Jalen Jones signal that Cross intends to add height on the perimeter.

The preseason poll has the Mavericks tied for eighth with Texas State, but the air of confidence among the coaching staff and roster imply that outside observers haven’t seen what’s coming.

The schedule sets up well because the Mavericks open and close the conference schedule at home. They will also play Ohio State, Memphis and Texas, and the renewal of the rivalry with North Texas is Dec. 3.

“We play one of the hardest schedules in the country, bringing money into the department,” Cross said. “You’ve just got to focus on what you can control and focus on getting better every day.”

Cross has built a roster to win this year and next. Now that he has the roster, he’s coaching for a chance at next year.

Fordham at UT Arlington

7:30 p.m. Saturday, College Park Center