Mid-major report: Is UT Arlington the Sun Belt's latest contender?

Thursday December 29th, 2016

Here Comes the Sun (Belt). Two years in a row now, a lower-seeded team from the Sun Belt Conference has pulled off one of the NCAA tournament’s signature first-round upsets. In 2015, Georgia State that stunned third-seeded Baylor, highlighted by coach Ron Hunter’s memorable stool tumble. This past season, Little Rock, led by Josh Hagins’s 31 points, knocked off fifth-seeded Purdue in a double-overtime thriller.

Can the Sun Belt make it three straight this March? Time will tell, but the most likely candidate to pull of another upset—providing it gets there—seems to be UT Arlington.

The Mavericks had a rough start to this season, dropping three of their first four games, but all three losses were to Top 100 teams on the road, and in the final one—against Arkansas—they blew an 11-point halftime lead. Since then, the Mavericks have reeled off nine wins in a row, including two victories that garnered real attention.

The first came on Nov. 29 in Austin, when UT Arlington took on intra-state foe Texas and left the Frank Erwin Center with a 72–61 win over Shaka Smart’s young squad. The state’s flagship school has struggled through its nonconference slate, but even in a down year for Texas, the win is significant for UT Arlington. It was the first time the Mavericks had toppled the Longhorns in program history.

College Basketball
Bracket Watch: First look at the field of 68 as conference play begins

But it was the second notable win that truly proved the Mavericks are not to be taken lightly—not now, and not down the line in a potential NCAA tournament matchup. On Dec. 8, UT Arlington headed to California for what was already its seventh road game of the season, this time against then-No. 12 Saint Mary’s, and left with a 14-point win—its first ever over a top-25 team.

How did the Mavericks solve the Gaels and limit the country’s No. 9 offense in adjusted efficiency on kenpom.com to 51 points? Saint Mary’s, which ranks seventh in the nation in two-point percentage, attempted just 24 shots from inside the arc, converting eight. It fared even worse from the three-point line, hitting only eight of its 27 attempts—a common theme for UT Arlington’s opponents this season. The Mavericks are holding opponents to 27.9% shooting from the perimeter, a mark that’s good for third in the country. They also took away another of the Gaels’ main weapons, limiting a team that averages 18.5 assists per game to 11.

Like most of their games, the Mavericks didn’t need anyone in particular to take over on offense in their wins over Texas and Saint Mary’s. Junior forward Kevin Hervey, who worked his way back from a torn ACL sustained last January, has emerged as the team’s leading scorer and rebounder at 13.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, including back-to-back double doubles in December. Hervey is UT Arlington’s main contributor, taking nearly 30% of its shots per kenpom.com, but he has help from senior guard Jalen Jones (12.8 ppg, 43.1% three-point shooting) and distributor Erick Neal (9.5 ppg, 7.1 apg). Senior guard Drew Charles also adds 46.0% shooting from the perimeter.

The Mavericks are one of the most experienced teams in the nation, with an entire starting lineup of juniors and seniors, but one area they struggle mightily is turnovers. They’re coughing the ball up on an alarmingly high 22.5% of their possessions, ranking second-to-last in the conference and among the worst in Division I. If not improved, that flaw could trip them up against conference foes like Louisiana Lafayette, Georgia State and Georgia Southern, who are all among the nation’s top 50 in defensive steal percentage.

Alas, perhaps the most important thing to take away from UT Arlington so far this season is that it appears to have learned how to close out tough games on the road. The Mavericks have led at halftime in all 13 of their games this season, but their three early losses all stemmed from losing their grip in the second half. Head coach Scott Cross’s willingness to schedule so many road games appears to have only benefitted his team, which enters Sun Belt play having played a top-30 nonconference schedule, including nine of its 13 games in true road environments.

Game of the Week: UNC Wilmington at Towson, Saturday at noon

The Seahawks and Tigers, picked to finish first and second in the CAA, respectively, open up conference play with a clash at SECU Arena on New Year’s Eve. It may be early, but for Towson to have a shot at upsetting UNCW for the CAA regular-season title, this home tilt could be crucial. The matchup will feature some excellent backcourt talent between the Seahawks’ duo of Chris Flemmings and C.J. Bryce (who combine for nearly 36 points per game) and Tigers junior Mike Morsell (17.6 ppg).

Robin Sholz/AP

Player to Watch: Marcus Keene, Central Michigan junior guard

How could it be anyone other than Keene, who is putting on a show night in and night out for the Chippewas and scoring more than five points per game more than anyone else in the country? A former Youngstown State transfer, Keene is averaging 31.9 points through 12 games, and he’s doing it via 50.8% shooting from the floor and a 42.3% clip from behind the arc. He’s scored at least 30 points nine times already, including hitting the 40-point mark in two of his last three games. His lowest output in a game this season was 23 points.

Keene isn’t simply a scoring machine, either. In a Dec. 6 win over Green Bay, he poured in 40 points and made six of 12 three-pointer attempts, while also dishing out 11 assists and grabbing seven rebounds. On the season, Keene is adding 5.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game to go along his ridiculous scoring stats. But despite all that, the 5' 9" guard may be most recognized right now for the swagger he exhibited on this three-pointer late during that Green Bay win, which went viral:

College basketball hasn’t seen a player average 30 points per game over a whole season since LIU’s Charles Jones in 1996–97, so Keene’s chase at history is definitely something you’ll want to follow as conference play kicks off.

Stat of the Week: Two

The six remaining undefeated teams in college hoops deservedly get plenty of mention, but believe it or not, two Division I teams are still searching for their first win of the season: Mississippi Valley State and Alabama A&M, both of the SWAC. That last bit is important, since the two schools will meet for the first of two times on Jan. 7, and if both enter that day still winless, it would guarantee someone’s going to leave with their first W. The Delta Devils probably have the edge there, since it’s a home game and Mississippi Valley State has played the fifth-hardest schedule in the country, according to kenpom.com, providing a bit of an explanation for its zero in the win column.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.