When junior guard Brandon Long lofted a runner in the lane in the final seconds of Texas-Arlington's battle at Wichita State last Friday, one of the biggest wins in school history hung in the balance. UTA, a school that has not made the NCAA tournament in 49 years and never won more than 20 games, had a chance to extend the school's record start to 8-0.
With over 10,000 Shockers fans trying to help the defense, Long's shot floated in, and the Mavericks recorded a 60-59 victory that rated as one of UTA's best ever.
"In my mind, with the atmosphere our guys faced and being down four with a minute and a half to go, it is definitely the biggest win I can remember," second-year coach Scott Cross said.
Cross is certainly qualified to assess where the Mavericks have been, at least over the last decade. He graduated from UTA in 1998 after playing for three years, then spent the next eight years as an assistant before taking over the head job in 2006 after Eddie McCarter resigned. Cross, who graduated with a 4.0 GPA, also married a former UTA volleyball player. The man knows the school through and through.
"You have realistic goals set up for your team every year that you kind of keep to yourself, but we're definitely ahead of where our realistic goals were," Cross says. "I'm really excited about that. Being undefeated at this point is unbelievable for us and is a tribute to how our guys are playing right now.
Though Texas-Arlington returns all five starters from last year, it was picked as the sixth best team in the Southland by the media in a preseason poll. Senior big man Jermaine Griffin is averaging 15.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per game while shooting 74.6 percent from the floor, which is third in the nation. Sophomore Rog'er Guignard, last year's Southland Freshman of the Year, has moved from shooting guard to the point and is averaging 10.5 points and 3.6 assists, and second-leading scorer Long (12.3 ppg) hit the big game-winner at Wichita.
"Griffin did not have his best game against Wichita State, which makes me feel even better about our team," Cross said. "We went in there and won without him playing like he normally does."
The best start in UTA history prior to this season was a 4-0 start in the 1992-93 season. On their way to doubling that number, the Mavericks have also recorded quality wins against Arkansas-Little Rock on the road and North Texas at home. UALR is 7-1, and North Texas has a win against Oklahoma State on its resume.
Texas-Arlington is not alone in its early-season success in the Southland's West Division. Sam Houston State is 8-0 with wins over Texas Tech, Fresno State, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Saint Louis. Stephen F. Austin is 7-1, losing only to Texas Tech while recording a win at Oklahoma. The conference RPI, which has averaged No. 25 among the 31 conferences since 2000, is currently at No. 18.
The top eight teams in the league will be invited to the Merrell Center in Katy, Texas, for the conference tournament, the second straight year the tournament will be held at a neutral site rather than at higher-seeded teams.
"With the automatic bid, we have to be playing our best ball come tournament time, but it will be very difficult because there are some really great teams in the Southland this year," Cross said.
TCU and Oklahoma State will try to put an end to the Texas-Arlington winning streak next week. Cross uses the 'you're only as good as your last game' mindset when assessing his team. When reminded that last game was a win at Wichita State, Cross laughed.
"Right now, we're pretty good."
Butler put together a terrific season last year, finishing with a school-record 29 wins and a Sweet 16 appearance. But, the Bulldogs' dream season was busted when they actually tied for the Horizon League regular season championship, losing the No. 1 tourney seed and automatic NCAA bid to Wright State.
Well, Wright State is at it again, handing Butler its first loss of the 2007-08 season last week in a 43-42 squeaker. Butler was held to only two points in the game's final 9:19, and A.J. Graves was 0-for-6 from the three-point range for the game. Over the last two years, Butler has lost only six games, three of coming to Wright State.
But Wright State isn't the only team Butler needs to worry about in the Horizon. Valparaiso, a conference newcomer, already has a win over Wright State and sits atop the league at 2-0 and 9-1 overall. Senior swingman Shawn Huff leads a group of five returning starters who will challenge Butler and Wright State for the conference crown.
A service to remember the 29 members of the University of Evansville basketball program who were killed in a plane crash will be held at the school's Neu Chapel on Dec. 13, the 30th anniversary of the tragedy. The crash killed every member of the 1977-78 Evansville basketball team, including first-year coach Bob Watson.
Evansville was in its first Division I season and had booked a charter flight out of Dress Regional Airport in Evansville en route to game at Middle Tennessee State the next night. Less than 90 seconds after takeoff on a foggy, rainy night, the twin engine DC-3 crashed at the edge of the airport. There were no survivors.
There is memorial plaza on campus with a fountain and two pillars inscribed with the names of those killed in the tragedy. Every five years, there is a memorial service in the chapel on the anniversary of the crash.
Three teams dropped off the Winless Watch last week. USC Upstate, Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State all recorded victories, leaving just five teams still looking to break into the victory column. Through Wednesday night's action, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Canisius, Grambling, Furman and Ball State were all still winless.