UTSA coach Steve Henson acknowledged recently that his players may have been caught off guard with the release of a Conference USA preseason poll that pegs them for a second-division finish next spring.
Entering 2021-22 without departed four-year standouts Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, the Roadrunners aren’t getting much love from the C-USA coaches, who have ranked them 11th out of 14 teams in the conference.
“Some of (our players) might have been surprised by that,” Henson said, “even though we’ve been telling them, that, ‘Hey, this is what people think,’ that Jhivvan and Keaton carried us, and they were terrific for us.
“But we’ve got some good, quality (players) coming back and some terrific talent coming in to add to it.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Henson said. “Looking at what we lost … I wasn’t too surprised at that. I’m more (focused) with what we have coming back, and I’m excited with that.”
Jackson and Wallace led UTSA to winning records in the conference in three out of four years.
Together, they formed one of the highest-scoring tandems out of the same recruiting class in NCAA history. Jackson scored 2,551 points in his career to rank 52nd in NCAA history, while Wallace added 2,080. On the C-USA scoring list, they finished No. 2 and No. 6 all-time, respectively.
Both left in the offseason to embark on pro careers. Without the two, UTSA must step up to answer questions about whether the team has enough talent to contend in their absence.
What they’re saying
Asked about the poll, sophomore guard Jordan Ivy-Curry took exception to the results, acknowledging that he was upset about it.
“A little bit,” Ivy-Curry said. “Even though we don’t have Keaton and Jhivvan, we shouldn’t be that low. At all.”
Ivy-Curry seemed to accept — to an extent — that some voters in the poll may just be unaware of UTSA’s personnel at this point.
“We’re going to work on that,” he said. “We’re going to focus on getting better and proving ourselves and showing these people that we shouldn’t be ranked 11th.”
Junior center Jacob Germany said the players discussed it in a group chat.
“It’s just more fuel to the fire,” he said. “Me personally, I’m OK with being the underdog. We’re used to that. It’s exciting, really.”
No team has ever won the conference title in October, right?
“Nobody’s really worried about the preseason,” Germany said. “We’re just trying to get better.”
First-year UTSA women’s basketball coach Karen Aston runs practice Monday at the Convocation Center. — Photo by Jerry Briggs
Tasked with building a winner out of a program that hasn’t had so much as a winning season in seven years, Karen Aston likes the vibe and the mood around her first team at UTSA.
“We have a long way to go,” Aston said Monday. “New players, new system. Lots of new terminology, so it’s kind of a grind most days.
“We’re in long hours now. We’re trying to get the most out of our four-hour days.
“They’re trying to learn not only … the philosophy and the system, but just (how) to put yourself kind of past what you think you are capable of doing.
“It’s a little bit of a grind. But they’re excited, I think, to learn, and they’re excited about the potential.”
Karen Aston at a glance
Announced on March 29 as UTSA’s 10th head coach in women’s basketball
Agreed to a six-year contract
Has forged a career record of 285-146 (.661)
Coached at Texas from 2012-2020 and went 184-83 (.689)
Led the Longhorns to six NCAA tournaments, including three Sweet 16s and an Elite 8
Season opener is Nov. 9 at home against Stephen F. Austin. Tip off at 5 p.m.
Associate head coach Jamie Carey played for Hall of Fame coach Jody Conradt (and Aston, then a UT assistant) and led the Longhorns to the 2003 NCAA Final Four.
UTSA associate head coach Jamie Carey surveys the action on the floor at Monday’s practice. — Photo by Jerry Briggs
Carey also played four years in the WNBA. Has served as an assistant at Colorado (2014-16), UT (2016-20) and North Texas (last year).
Recruiting coordinator Empress Davenport played four years for Aston at Texas, including the 31-win, Elite Eight team in 2016. Served the past three years as recruiting coordinator at Lamar.
Also, the staff includes assistant coach Cameron Miles and Lauren Fruits, the director of basketball operations.
“This is a real high-level staff,” Aston said. “I mean, really high level. They have been around the block a few times. They’ve been with me. Empress played for me. Jamie coached for me and played with me at Texas when I was an assistant. Coach Miles, he’s known me for years.
Empress Davenport played for Karen Aston at Texas when the Longhorns reached the Elite Eight in 2016. — Photo by Jerry Briggs
“They’re high level because of the way they approach every day. I mean, not only are they good basketball coaches and have high IQs … they know how to teach the game.
“They’re also invested. They’re completely invested in UTSA. They’re completely invested in our players, getting better every day, as people and as basketball players.”
An epic challenge
Turning around the UTSA women’s basketball program will not be easy.
The Roadrunners bottomed out with records of 9-21, 7-21, 6-23 and 2-18 in the past four years, respectively. In the past three seasons, the Roadrunners’ record in Conference USA is a combined 4-44, including 0-14 last season.
Eight players return, including regulars Kyleigh McGuire, Yuliyana Valcheva, Charlene Mass and Emilie Baek. Also, Elena Blanding, Ceyenne Mass, Kennedy Harrell and Shannan Mitchell.
The most experienced of the newcomers are guards Jadyn Pimentel and LaPraisjah Johnson. Others are Elyssa Coleman, Hailey Atwood, Queen Ulabo, Deborah Nwakamma, Ndeye Ciss and Shantel Govan.
McGuire said she likes the energy shown by the team thus far.
“The energy has been great,” she said. “Before actually getting in the gym with everybody, knowing that we have so many new people, that could be nerve-wracking, with the new coaches. I was nervous. But getting in here with these guys, I could tell that they really love the game, and they’re passionate about it.”
On Monday, Aston on several occasions would stop the action on the floor, asking players to stick with what the staff has been teaching. McGuire said it’s a different atmosphere with the new coaches around.
“I think it’s a lot different than last year,” she said. “They’re very particular when it comes to the small details. I think it really pushes us to try to be perfectionists. At the same time, they understand that we can make mistakes, so they’re very understanding, but they want to help us get better.
“They’re very encouraging. They want to see us succeed.”
From time to time, it gets pretty wild at the UTSA Convocation Center.
If you need evidence, check out a video taken at the end of a comeback victory for the Roadrunners over the Old Dominion Monarchs (see above) from the 2018-19 season.
UTSA president Dr. Taylor Eighmy addresses the media Thursday, explaining the school’s move to the American Athletic Conference. — Photo by Jerry Briggs
Alas, the nights of passion in the ‘Bird Cage’ may be numbered.
UTSA president Dr. Taylor Eighmy on Thursday acknowledged the school’s long-range plans to build a new, 10,000-seat competition arena on campus for basketball and volleyball.
“That is a downstream project that we want to develop, using a public-private partnership,” Eighmy said.
The president made his comments after a campus news conference, during which he announced that UTSA would move all of its 17 NCAA Division I athletics programs to the American Athletic Conference.
The school’s move from Conference USA to the AAC is expected to be made after the next two or three years.
The arena is part of a bold facilities push for UTSA, which first fielded intercollegiate athletics teams in 1981-82.
Since then, both men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball have played their games at the Convocation Center on campus.
Over the years, officials in past UTSA administrations have talked about the need for a new arena to replace the aging ‘Bird Cage,’ but nothing of substance has been discussed until now.
The arena report came nestled in a Thursday morning AAC news release that announced UTSA as one of its six new members.
A paragraph in the release started off by saying that the school in August opened the Roadrunner Center of Excellence, a 95,000-square foot facility that houses offices and training areas and is considered as the home for the school’s 24th-ranked football program.
In addition, the AAC release said, UTSA “is embarking on an expansive” capital campaign to develop several other projects, including:
*A new 10,000-seat arena for basketball and volleyball;
*New baseball and softball stadiums;
*A dedicated basketball/volleyball training facility;
*Also, a “standalone” facility for track and field and soccer.
Estimated cost for all of the above could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The administrative wheels are already moving on one of the projects.
Eighmy said UTSA has submitted a request to the City of San Antonio in an effort to gain assistance in funding the basketball/volleyball training facility.
The request is tied to the next city’s next bond project. Eighmy said it would be built adjacent to the RACE building.
“So,’ he added, “we’re already starting on systematic approaches to find resources, or mechanisms, to proceed with adding additional facilities.”
Eighmy declined to estimate what it would cost to build the basketball/volleyball competition arena or when he would like to see the teams move in.
“It’s obviously on our plans to get going,” the president said. “We have a bunch of things we have to tackle. We have to finish Park West (where the track and soccer teams compete).
“We really want to get this practice facility built, for men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball, but (the arena) is on our horizon. In my lifetime. How about that?”
UTSA men’s basketball coach Steve Henson said he’s excited about the pending move to the new conference and also about the talk of a new arena.
In regard to the challenge of playing in the revamped AAC, and competing against the likes of Memphis, Wichita State and SMU, he admitted that UTSA would be embarking on a league filled with teams that play “high level” basketball.
“The challenge will be great, but the excitement behind it will be great, as well,” he said.
Memphis, under coach Penny Hardaway, has been ranked 12th nationally in the preseason Associated Press poll. Moreover, teams in the AAC play in high-caliber arenas.
Memphis plays in the FedEx Forum. Wichita State plays in the sparkling Charles Koch Arena.
Told after practice that the AAC had sent out information on UTSA’s proposed 10,000-seat arena, Henson smiled and said, “Awesome. I look forward to seeing those plans.”
Henson said he knew about the proposed training facility but acknowledged that he had not heard specifics on UTSA’s arena project.
“I know our people are working like crazy to put us in this position (to change conferences),” he said. “I assumed we had to have some other things in the works to make it happen.
“But, no, I had not heard (about the arena).”
Henson admitted that an arena for his program would supply a boost for a program that has posted winning records in three of the last four seasons but has yet to break through with an NCAA tournament appearance.
An arena, he said, “would do wonders.”
UTSA athletic director Lisa Campos said a combined cost for the basketball/volleyball training center and the baseball and softball stadiums could range from $70 million to $80 million.
Campos added that the arena could cost “a couple of hundred million” dollars to complete.
Clearly, it will be a tall order for UTSA to raise that kind of money.
It could take years to do it, considering the magnitude of the investment and the current economic climate locally coming out of the pandemic.
“We’re going to be strategic about how we could find revenue sources,” she said. “Of course, we’re going to capitalize on the momentum for our philanthropic endeavors, and, winning breeds winning, and folks want to be involved in that.
“Someone had asked me earlier about fundraising, and really, our fan-base, our donor-base has continued to give to UTSA athletics.”
A UTSA master plan published in 2019 pinpoints the location of the proposed arena on the west end of campus. Eighmy said he wants it to be used for “multiple” purposes.
Asked if such a building of that scope could host NCAA tournament games, Eighmy didn’t rule it out.
“Those are the things we have to consider as we develop this public-private partnership,” he said. “We’re advocating all the time why our athletics programs benefit the entire city.”
Eighmy said he wants to invest in programs led by the likes of Henson, Karen Aston (women’s basketball) and Laura Neugebauer-Groff (volleyball) who work in the Convocation Center on a daily basis.
“Our Convocation Center is not a suitable facility for either practice or intercollegiate competition,” Eighmy said. “I mean, it served its purpose in its day, but we need to move on.”
UTSA forward Cedrick Alley Jr. (left) teams with center Jacob Germany to hound a UAB shooter last year. Alley, once regarded as the top player in Texas Class 6A at Klein Forest High School, is acknowledged as the defensive leader for the Roadrunners. – Photo by Joe Alexander
After experiencing the sweetness of team success in college basketball at the University of Houston, Cedrick Alley Jr. never quite felt completely fulfilled on an individual level.
He hopes to taste both sensations this season as a senior with the UTSA Roadrunners.
In a candid interview, Alley, a former “Mr. Basketball” in Texas at Klein Forest High School, spelled out his hoop dreams in detail recently.
He laid them out there for all to analyze, as fans are known to do.
Alley wants to play in the NCAA tournament again, as he did a few years ago with the Cougars. Moreover, in his second year with the Roadrunners, he also hopes to make a run at Defensive Player of the Year honors in Conference USA.
All of it, he said, makes up a grand plan to help re-establish UTSA basketball tradition. Alley wants that, more than anything, as he prepares for his last ride as a college player.
“It is crazy to think about that, seeing (former teammates) go off and be able to hold up their picture (on Senior Day), and have everyone scream for them,” he said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s going to be a great feeling (for me).
“But I’m not so much focused on that as I am on … winning the Conference USA Tournament, and getting us where we want to go — to the NCAA Tournament. UTSA basketball. I feel like we can get there.”
Coach Steve Henson says he thinks Cedric Alley, Jr., is playing with a renewed passion for the game – Photo by Joe Alexander
What makes him so confident?
“Our coaches have been real, real serious about defense this year,” Alley said. “We’ve hardly even worked on offense. So I feel one of our main goals this year is to be one of the best defensive teams in this league.
“I feel like our defense is going to take us as far as we want to go. We lock in on defense, and we can be in any game we play.”
At Houston, Alley redshirted his first year out of Klein Forest and then played 60 games over two years through 2019-20 with the nationally-ranked Cougars. At that juncture, he transferred, seeking a fresh start at UTSA.
With the Roadrunners last season, he battled through a series of minor injuries to average a modest 6.3 points, but he came on strong down the stretch as the team went 8-2 in the last 10 games of the C-USA regular season.
This year? Alley, at 6-6, 230 pounds, is sort of like the team’s defensive coordinator in the locker room. He takes the leadership role seriously, and he thinks that if he does his job, the team will win.
Also, his individual success will follow.
“I want to average 10 rebounds,” he said. “Points, it don’t matter to me. Everyone on this team can score. I want to average 10 rebounds and be a defensive player. I want to be the Defensive Player (of the Year) in Conference USA.
“That’s my expectation, and to hold the team accountable, if we’re not doing the job our coaches want us to.”
With a little more than three weeks remaining before the start of the new season, UTSA coach Steve Henson said he is more than happy with Alley’s work ethic and mindset.
“I don’t know if he alluded to it or not, but we kind of feel like he’s got a little of his passion back,” Henson said. “Sometimes when you go from being a superstar — you know, he was an elite high school player — it wasn’t easy (for him) at Houston.
“His role was diminished a little bit, and he didn’t have as much impact on the results … as he wanted to have.”
“He didn’t get off to a great start (for us) last year. Second half, he was pretty good. But he’s got a different approach right now. His offseason was much better this year. He’s much better conditioned.”
Last season, his conditioning failed him at times because of circumstances beyond his control.
Physical setbacks kept him from attaining peak conditioning at the outset of the season, Henson said, and then a groin injury in January in the C-USA opener at Rice added to his problems.
Additionally, with C-USA games scheduled for back-to-back days because of Covid-19 mitigation, Alley was hamstrung. He’d play one day but couldn’t get moving on the second day.
It wasn’t until Jan. 23 that he played as many as 19 minutes on Day Two of a back-to-back.
By the time Alley started feeling it physically, the monster snowstorm hit and the power went out in his apartment, forcing him to relocate to a teammate’s on-campus dwelling to stay warm.
“Crazy,” he said, thinking back to last season. “But, we’re here now, and we’re thinking about having a big year. A big year.”
From the outside, Alley’s talk of a title run for the Roadrunners is likely to be met with skepticism.
Ten seasons have passed since the Roadrunners last made it to an NCAA tournament. On top of that, as a C-USA member for the past eight seasons, they haven’t even made it past the tournament quarterfinals.
Alley, however, is confident.
Cedrick Alley, Jr. says he wants to be the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year and to lead the Roadrunners to the NCAA tournament. — Photo by Joe Alexander
Even without departed standouts Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, he believes the Roadrunners’ players are up to the task. Taller at most positions. With longer arms to shut down passing lanes. And with enough offensive firepower to win.
Some of the offense may come from some of the youngest players, he said.
“Josh (Farmer), he’s like 6 (feet) 9 and he plays hard. Goes to the boards hard. He can go get a bucket any time. He’s looking very good on the court, very comfortable.
“Then we got Lamin (Sabally) from Germany. He’s very long. Defensive stopper. He steps up at big moments. And then we got AZ (Azavier Johnson) from Las Vegas. A big body.
“We’re looking for them to come in and give us everything they got.”
Leading the way is Alley, a guy with a charismatic personality who doesn’t mind taking on the challenge of elevating the program from good, to better than good — all the way back to the Big Dance.
“I want to get UTSA on the map, (to let people know) that we’re here for basketball, and that we can compete at the highest level,” he said.
UTSA center Jacob Germany told us last season he might try to expand his range to the three-point line. Well, it happened at practice Thursday when the 6-11 junior knocked one down out of the corner. https://t.co/hyCDEtJ4sqpic.twitter.com/YdOlGdTotV
Lamin Sabally is a 6-foot-7 freshman guard/forward from Germany. – photo by Joe Alexander
Freshman forward Lamin Sabally has returned to drills with the UTSA Roadrunners after sitting out four or five practices with a concussion early in the preseason camp.
UTSA coach Steve Henson said Tuesday that Sabally has been working his way back into form since re-joining the team on the floor last Saturday.
“He’s been fine (physically),” Henson said. “He didn’t lose much in that short of time. No effects of that whatsoever. He just jumped right back into it.”
UTSA has been in practices for nearly two weeks in preparation for a Nov. 9 season opener against Trinity.
Sabally, at 6-7 and 195 pounds, plays a fluid style that should complement the Roadrunners’ other rotation pieces in the frontcourt.
“We’ve never had a roster with that many long forwards, guys that could play multiple positions, (with) that much length, and pretty skilled at that position as well,” the coach said.
Henson said he has liked the looks of his team’s defense to this point but acknowledges that “we’re searching a little bit right now” in terms of identifying an offensive style.
“We’ve got different guys with the ability to create, and move the ball,” he said. “We can trust virtually everybody to make plays, which is a good sign.”
Henson said the Roadrunners are hopeful of being multi-dimensional on offense, with several scoring threats.
“Everybody can handle it well enough on the perimeter that we can play with five guys on the perimeter quite a bit,” the coach said. “If we can get four guys around (center) Jacob (Germany), that looks pretty good, as well.
“Still searching for a little more attack, seeking fouls, driving it down into the paint. We’re going to continue to look for that.
“There are times in practice when we make a lot of threes, we’re shooting off the pass, and shooting it pretty well,” he said. “It’s kind of across the board. A guy will make one. Another guy will make one.
“It’s not like one or two guys are carrying the load in that regard.”
Sabally, from Berlin, in Germany, is from a basketball family. Satou Sabally, his sister, has played two seasons in the WNBA with the Dallas Wings. She was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft out of Oregon. Nyara Sabally, another sister, is a junior at Oregon.
Lamin Sabally played internationally for the ALBA Berlin U18 team in 2018-19 in the Munich League before coming to the United States. He also played for the club team Tusli Lichterfeld in Berlin. Sabally moved from Germany in 2019 to play prep basketball in Arizona.
UTSA forward Aleu Aleu, a 6-8 junior transfer, has sat out most of the team’s camp with an unspecified injury. He was out again Tuesday after making it through about half of Monday’s workout …
Henson said walk-on point guard Christian Tucker, from Chandler, Ariz., has played well. “He’s been terrific,” Henson said. “He’s been really, really good.”
Lachlan Bofinger has emerged at the start of camp as one of the most improved of the returning players for the UTSA Roadrunners. — Photo by Joe Alexander
After his seventh practice of the preseason, UTSA coach Steve Henson said Thursday that he likes the progress his team has made thus far.
“I’m very encouraged,” Henson said. “It’s a real competitive group. I mean, they get after it. They want to keep score on just about everything we do.
“We’ve got a good ability to compete and talk and fight each other, and then as soon as it’s over, they move past it.
“They don’t carry any grudges when things get a little rough. I think that’s a good sign for us.”
The Roadrunners are about a quarter of the way through their preseason. By rule, Division I programs get 30 practices.
Josh Farmer is a promising 6-9 freshman forward from Houston. – Photo by Joe Alexander
On Thursday afternoon, freshman forward Josh Farmer had a solid day, showing off an ability to hit jumpers, as well as a knack for finishing drives with soft banks off the glass.
Henson said he’s seen “quite a few” pleasant surprises.
“All of them have been good,” he said. “I’ve been really impressed with the freshmen. Those guys are doing a great job.”
The coach also mentioned transfers Dhieu Deing (a junior) and Darius McNeill (a senior) for playing up to high expectations, with 6-6 sophomore Lachlan Bofinger emerging as one of the most improved players among the returners.
“It is early, but he is playing with so much confidence,” Henson said. “He just makes a lot of good plays. Doesn’t matter how we pick the teams. His team has a chance to win most of the time.”
After Farmer utilized his 6-foot-9 size and shooting touch to score a few baskets, Bofinger blocked his shot, saved it from going out of bounds and flung it downcourt to start a fast break.
The sequence ended with a resounding two-handed stuff by senior forward Cedrick Alley, Jr.
“He’s a pretty versatile guy,” Henson said of Bofinger, a native of Australia who averaged 9.9 minutes in 17 games last year as a freshman. “It looks like he’s taken a big step here. He’s relentless (in every practice). Every drill, every rep.”
The Roadrunners have suffered some adversity in the early going, the most notable being senior forward Adrian Rodriguez, who has elected not to play because of medical reasons.
Rodriguez has been slowed since 2017, his freshman year, by a knee injury.
In addition, freshman Lamin Sabally and junior transfer Aleu Aleu have also been held out of most of the camp thus far.
Aleu, a 6-foot-8 transfer from Temple JC, hasn’t had a full practice yet but he does attend and is gradually increasing his work load.
Sabally worked out on media day last Wednesday, on the first day, and he showed off potential as a wing defender.
But the 6-7 forward, slowed by a concussion, hasn’t practiced much this week though he could be cleared for more work by Saturday.
Frontcourt minutes available
Most of the talk as camp opened centered on how the team would make up for the loss of guards Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, the Nos. 1-2 scorers in school history, who are both pursuing pro careers.
But the team also has some questions to answer about the frontcourt, as well.
Rodriguez played some at backup center and power forward last season. Now that he has decided not to play, that is one void the team must figure out how to fill.
Also to be determined is a replacement for Eric Parrish, a starting small forward last season who elected last spring to leave the team.
Deing, a 6-foot-5 transfer, apparently is the guy to step in for Parrish.
He is a player of African descent who was born in Louisiana and played in high school in North Carolina. He attended Dodge City (Kan.) JC last year and, last summer, suited up for South Sudan’s national team in the FIBA AfroBasket tournament.
Deing shoots well from the perimeter and can create on the dribble.
Right now, he appears to be the leading contender to step into a starting lineup that would also include big men Jacob Germany at center, Alley at power forward, McNeill at point guard and Jordan Ivy-Curry at shooting guard.
Bofinger, Farmer, Aleu and Sabally are all players who could play both forward positions.
While Bofinger is a hard-driving type who thrives on creating havoc on the defensive end, Farmer is a burgeoning offensive talent.
Aleu was born in Kenya, in Africa, and Sabally in Germany.
Both have also played in high school in the United States, Aleu in high school in Austin and at Temple JC, and Sabally in prep school in Arizona.
Returning senior Phoenix Ford is expected to play a prominent role at the power forward position.
Adrian Rodriguez on Wednesday was lauded by his coach for bringing a positive energy to the program. – Photo by Joe Alexander
Described by his coach as an “inspirational” player who always led by example, UTSA forward Adrian Rodriguez on Wednesday announced he has elected to retire from basketball for medical reasons.
“Today is a hard day as I’m announcing that I am completing my career as a Roadrunner due to medical reasons,” said Rodriguez, a fifth-year senior, in a statement released through the athletic department.
Rodriguez, from Tulsa, Okla., came to UTSA and played in 71 games with seven starts, scoring 157 points, grabbing 184 rebounds and blocking 17 shots. He also had 10 steals.
The 6-foot-7, 245-pound Rodriguez has battled injuries throughout his college career.
He suffered a season-ending knee injury in the season opener of his true freshman season on Nov. 12, 2017, a game in which he produced 10 points and eight rebounds in 14 minutes.
Rodriguez returned for the 2018-19 season, playing in 29 of UTSA’s 32 games.
In his third season in 2019-20, he played in 23 games with three starts. Last season, he was in 18 of 26 games with four starts in the post.
Coach Steve Henson lauded Rodriguez for bringing a positive spirit to the Roadrunners.
“His work ethic, positive attitude and passion for his school and teammates has been inspirational,” Henson said in a statement.
“After suffering an injury in his first collegiate game, Adrian worked daily at rehab in an effort to be the best teammate he can be,” the coach said, “and only through his hard work, he was able to come back and become a key part of our roster for the last three years.”