When the UT Arlington men’s basketball team lost Kevin Hervey for the season, the Mavericks’ at-large hopes for the NCAA tournament vanished during a four-game losing streak.
But having won four straight to close out the regular season, UT Arlington enters this week’s Sun Belt tournament at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans as the No. 3 seed that nobody wants to play. They’ll draw Thursday’s Georgia State-Texas State winner at 7:30 p.m. Friday in hopes of moving on to play Louisiana-Monroe Saturday and the championship game on Sunday.
The Mavericks (22-9, 13-7 SBC) are the best rebounding team in college basketball with 44 per game, and they led the Sun Belt with 278 3-pointers.
We have a resilient group of guys. We just kept battling and started to play great basketball again.
UT Arlington coach Scott Cross
It’s all about execution, however, and in mid-major conference tournaments that only send one team to the Big Dance, a red-hot underdog can end anyone’s season too early. UT Arlington coach Scott Cross should know. In the 2012 Southland Conference tournament, his 24-9 Mavericks were blasted by a 17-15 McNeese State team that shot 54.2 percent from the floor in a 92-72 defeat that sent UTA to the NIT.
This year started even more promising than 2012. Kevin Hervey emerged as a star and the Mavericks began the season 14-3, earning some buzz as a possible at-large team after victories at Ohio State and Memphis. When Hervey went down with a torn ACL on Jan. 23, however, the Mavericks lost four straight games and scrambled to regain their identity.
So Cross committed to a man-heavy defensive system that’s sparked a strong finish to the season, including wins in eight of their last 10 games.
“We have a resilient group of guys,” Cross said. “We just kept battling and started to play great basketball again.”
Erick Neal took over and became the premier point guard in the Sun Belt with a 186-assist season, saving his best work for later in the season when he dished out 7.1 assists over the last 15 games.
NCAA team rebounding leaders: 1. UTA, 2. Green Bay, 3. BYU, 4. Valparaiso, 5. Siena
One target was Jalen Jones, who shot 38.8 percent from 3-point range and led the conference by shooting 80.9 percent from the charity stripe. And when he missed, Jorge Bilbao cleaned up the boards with 7.2 rebounds per game.
Despite a guard-heavy lineup that puts the 6-foot-3 Jones at power forward, the Mavericks outrebounded the rest of college basketball.
“That’s a testament to the heart of our team,” Cross said. “It’s hard to measure a player’s heart, but these guys have it.”
With a 22-win season in the books, the Mavericks need three more to set a program record. If they can get that third win, they’ll book their ticket to the NCAA tournament.
UTA men vs. Georgia State-Texas State
7:30 p.m. Friday, New Orleans
Sun Belt tournament
▪ 5. Georiga Southern vs. 8. South Alabama
▪ 6 Georgia State vs. 7 Texas State
▪ 4. ULL vs. Georgia Southern-South Alabama, 5 p.m.
▪ 3 UT Arlington vs. Georgia State-Texas State, 7:30 p.m.
Semifinals, 1 and 3:30 p.m.