February 4, 2009 9:36 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
Sam Houston State at Texas-San Antonio (Southland)
Convocation Center - San Antonio, TX
8:00 PM EST
When I hitchhiked across the country and back between my junior and senior years in high school, one of my rides took me into a two-calendar cafÃ© in Amarillo, Texas. He and the waitress decided to play a trick on a poor dumb northerner, and teamed up to tell me that I should really try the "Texas ice cream" for dessert... it was totally delicious and not to be missed. Of course, it turned out to be a big steaming bowl of grits, and everybody had a good laugh at my expense. But that's all beside the point. Tonight, our imaginary camera crew is headed to a conference that's big as all of Texas: the Southland.
Last season, Sam Houston State spent its nonconference portion of the schedule running up a 12-1 record and taking up residence in our State rankings, nabbing minor Red Line Upsets against Texas Tech and Central Florida. But the grind got to the Bearkats, and the team was running on fumes by February. After SHSU flamed out in the conference semis against eventual champion Texas-Arlington, we adjusted our index formulas to take momentum more into account (with what will always be internally referred to as "the Sam Houston algorithm"). This year, things are working in reverse. The Bearkats were once again one of the few Southland teams that scheduled up, and paid for it with a 6-7 nonleague record. But they've been surging of late, winning five in a row and pulling into a first-place tie in the Western division with an emphatic 21-point victory over previously league-undefeated Corpus Christi. This was one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country last year, choosing instead to drive, but the cast has changed... now, it's the best in the SLC from outside with a 38 percent average. Ashton Mitchell, a 5-11 junior guard, dropped 36 at Lamar last week.
The visiting Roadrunners entered conference play at 8-4, with two wins over Conference USA teams: Rice and SMU. And they haven't hit the wall that SHSU found last year -- at 4-2, San Antonio is just one game behind Sam State and Corpus Christi. UTSA has avoided most of the injury issues that turned last season into a forgettable 13-17 campaign, and can now return to taking its nickname seriously. As far as pace goes, this is the second-fastest team in the country (second only to conference-mates Texas State), averaging 81 possessions per game. Yes, they get two offensive sets per minute... no shot clock violations here. They miss a lot of the shots they take (38.4 percent conversion rate in conference play), but they get plenty of chances. Roadrunner Travis Gabbidon, a 6-7 senior, has undergone three foot surgeries in two years and was erased from 2007-08 after 14 games. But the two-year juco transfer is just now rounding into form: he leads the team with 14.2 ppg and has earned three double-doubles in his last five games. Gritty!
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