I've been thinking a good deal about the comments made in the past week by one of this site's most important figures over the last eight years, Jim Larranaga.
"This year, looking at their non-conference performance, it would appear to me that those [NCAA Tournament] spots should be reserved for the high-majors, who played a much more difficult non-conference schedule and have been far more successful than many of the teams in the mid-majors."
He went on to criticize his old school's out of conference strength of schedule, some of which he must have had at least a cursory role in producing, given his late April departure. This, of course, ignores the reality that it's hard for at-large caliber mid-majors to get SOS-boosting games outside of exempt tournaments (which Larranaga surely knows).
I want so badly to talk about Larranaga's hypocrisy, compare him to Fredo Corleone and talk about him as a general politician. I'm having trouble reconciling the magnanimous, brilliant George Mason coach with the character we now see as the University of Miami coach. However, it might take Larranaga being caught up in some sort of Miami Vice-esque drug ring for me to not think of the unexpected joy that Mason 2006 provided when I think of the Bronx native.
Even though Butler's 2010 run ended eight pixels from the ultimate prize, my favorite mid-major run in the NCAA Tournament is still the Patriots' from six years ago due to the fact that it broke the glass ceiling that had seemingly prevented mid-majors from making the tournament's final weekend. While Penn and Indiana State had made the Final Four from conferences now in the Other 24 in 1979, it was before the age of big money and big TV in college hoops, and therefore not completely analogous. Heck, it was only 16 months after the term mid-major had been conceived.
Late on the morning of March 26, 2006, I remember driving in the family Volvo listening to what I believe was the Westwood One network's pregame show for that day's two regional finals. It was hosted by the famed sportz talk radio hosts Mike and the "Mad Dog." They spent about five minutes analyzing the upcoming matchup between Mason and UConn and closed with, "Well, all that's not going to matter anyway, we all know UConn is going to blow them out."
I watched the second half of that East Regional final (I refuse to acknowledge that there was a time when the regions were named after cities, just like I refuse to acknowledge the "Third Round" of the tournament now) in shock. The players in green could not possibly be outshooting and outrebounding the Monstars in white. But there it was, not without nervy moments, but there nonetheless. That once-unfathomable joy for All of Us and Each of Us was brought to life that March Sunday, and personally, no above-the-Red Line politicking by the then-coach of the green team can change what I felt that day.
The sort of unexpected joy Mason produced in 2006 is the kind that most of America associates with mid-majors. It's the quick hit moments that are featured for years on GM commercials during the tournament. Yet, as I've found this season in particular, it's possible to experience unexpected joy below the Red Line over a much longer time period.
If you've been reading my recaps, you know I'm a North Texas grad student. Most of my 800GP offering has been at UNT games. While I don't consider UTA a fierce rival, the fact of life is that UNT and UTA have similar recruiting footprints and play a non-conference game every year. So, perhaps from some self-interested perspective, I shouldn't wish for UTA to do well. Forget that. I don't want to be that cynical, especially about a quality, respectful program like UTA's. Now, I definitely didn't think coming into this season that I'd end up admiring UTA's program about as much as UNT's, and that's part of what has made this season enjoyable in such an unexpected fashion.
Before the first UTA game I went to this season, the program's finale at Texas Hall, I had followed the Mavericks' results. At that point, UTA was 5-0 in conference and riding an eight-game winning streak. It was an impressive run, and I was happy to see it continue with a 63-54 win over Stephen F. Austin. I found the team's UStream page (#pixelvision, y'all!) after the Texas Hall swan song and watched some road games. It became clear after not too many viewings that this team would be a blast to watch for the rest of the season. They played hard, loved to defend and get out in transition on offense. But just as importantly, they could persevere and win games when things weren't going their way or when their preferred style couldn't be played. That win streak eventually reached a school-record 16 games and was snapped in Utah, the same state where it began, against Weber State on February 18. Even losing in the high altitude, the Mavs nearly stole the game late.
The phrase "they play the game the right way" has always struck me as a ham-handed thing to say. It implies that there's one style and one set of skills that lead to success in basketball. There's obviously a variety of ways to win in basketball, and that's part of what makes it one of the greatest sports on the planet. That said, very successful basketball teams usually commit to defense and teamwork. It's in this way that UT-Arlington could be considered by many to play the "right way."
Coming into Saturday's game, UTA had already clinched the No. 1 seed in next month's Southland Conference tournament with three games to play after winning at second-place McNeese State in a 93-89 shootout. Despite nearly surrendering all of a 29-point halftime lead, UTA made the plays necessary to win, even as the Mavericks' rebounding and field goal defense suffered. With that win, UTA made sure it will play in the national postseason for only the third time ever. The Mavericks' 21st win tied a school record for wins with three regular season games and the conference tournament still to play.
One of the things that had me thinking about Larranaga's comments days after they passed through the Twitter, blog and news cycles was UT-Arlington's opponent Saturday, Northwestern State. If you've followed mid-major basketball the last 10 years, you know that the Demons had a moment of unexpected joy in that same 2006 tournament when "The Shot" by Jermaine Wallace fell against Iowa. If you've been a reader of this site for more than a couple years, you know that NSU let Kyle be an assistant coach for a night, and that the program was there for this site's founder when things more important than basketball intervened. Mike McConathy is still the head coach, as he was back then and for the tournament win. Patrick Netherton is still the radio guy (and was right across the College Park Center floor from my second row seat), although Coach Sless, Mark Slessinger, is now the head coach at Division II New Orleans.
NSU entered the game at 7-6 in Southland play and 15-13 overall. 2012 has been a streaky year for McConathy's team. The Demons came in having lost their previous four SLC games, after winning five in a row before that. In the first half Saturday, NSU shook off a 37-point outing on 20% shooting in their previous game to shoot 61%. Turnovers helped keep UTA down only six at the halftime, despite the Mavericks' shooting 39% and not playing some of their best ball.
One of the beautiful things about this UT-Arlington team is that you know the run is coming, even when shots aren't falling, rebounds aren't being grabbed and defenders are closing out a little too late. And that's not a statement qualified with an "if."
With about 15 minutes left, UTA still trailed by six at 51-45. A couple minutes later, the Mavs were within one. When Bo Ingram put the Mavs up by one at 52-51 just before the 12-minute timeout, it was on.
When UTA is at its exhilarating best, you see it the most on the defensive end. The Mavericks' eyes light up when they have a chance to force a turnover. They want to guard you, swarm you, make you give up the ball and completely demoralize you, because they're going to do it to you again on the next possession. And if you do get a shot off, you're going to miss it, and UTA will get the rebound. Having worked so hard for your previous shot, you're not going to keep up with the Mavs when they take it the other way and score easily. When you see them play like this, you have to admire it.
The Demons were no match for the quick strikes of the Mavericks in the second half. The lead was double digits in short order, and blew out to as much as 17. NSU scored enough in the final minutes to cut the ultimate margin to single digits. The victory clinched the outright Southland Conference Regular Season title for the Mavs and gave them the single-season school record for wins. The accomplishments of a couple of big men in the game were notable. NSU's William Mosley went into fifth place on the all-time NCAA career blocks list, passing Alonzo Mourning. There's an outside chance Mosley could go past Tim Duncan to get to fourth by the end of the season. UTA's Jordan Reves had a season-high 20 points. With UTA's athletic wings and forwards, Reves isn't the go-to guy for the Mavericks, but has now scored above his season average in three consecutive games. After the game, Southland Conference Commissioner Tom Burnett awarded UT-Arlington the Regular Season Champion trophy, won on Wednesday at McNeese but shown off Saturday to the home fans at College Park Center. The Mavericks then cut down the nets in celebration of their outright regular season title, an honor coach Scott Cross has sought ever since he was a player and then an assistant with UTA.
At 14-0 in Southland play, UT-Arlington is threatening to become the first undefeated team in the league since the early 1970s. Two more games beckon in the regular season before that dream can become a reality, against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at College Park Center and on the road against UT-San Antonio. Regardless of whether they get to 16-0, being able to see the greatest UT-Arlington basketball team in person has been an unexpected joy.
at TEXAS-ARLINGTON 79, NORTHWESTERN STATE 70 02/25/2012
NORTHWESTERN STATE 15-14 (7-7) -- D. McClellan 3-6 2-2 11; W. Mosley 2-2 1-2 5; S. Davis 7-11 5-8 20; J. Hulbin 2-5 1-1 5; L. Ellis 8-13 0-0 20; T. Washington 0-4 3-4 3; P. Robinson 4-7 4-5 13; G. Stewart 0-4 0-0 0; O. Evans 0-0 0-1 0; G. Roberson 1-4 0-0 3; M. Frazier 0-0 0-2 0; J. Brisco 0-0 1-2 1; D. Ulak 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-50 15-25 70. TEXAS-ARLINGTON 22-6 (14-0) -- L. Reed III 5-10 7-8 17; B. Ingram 4-10 3-4 13; K. Butler 4-6 5-9 13; J. Reves 7-13 6-9 20; S. White-Miller 1-2 0-0 2; B. Gay 4-7 2-6 10; C. Catlett 0-3 2-2 2; B. Edwards 1-3 0-0 2; K. Gruszecki 0-4 0-2 0; S. Lagerson 0-0 0-0 0; N. Osbourne 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 26-59 25-40 79.
Three-point goals: NWSU 7-23 (J. Hulbin 0-1; S. Davis 1-4; L. Ellis 4-8; P. Robinson 1-2; G. Stewart 0-2; T. Washington 0-3; G. Roberson 1-3), UTA 2-18 (L. Reed 0-1; K. Butler 0-2; B. Gay 0-3; B. Ingram 2-8; K. Gruszecki 0-3; N. Osbourne 0-1); Rebounds: NWSU 26 (W. Mosley 5), UTA 37 (J. Reves 10); Assists: NWSU 12 (S. Davis 3), UTA 10 (L. Reed 3); Total Fouls -- NWSU 27, UTA 18; Fouled Out: NWSU-None; UTA-None.