Hopes are high as UTSA unveils revamped roster in first practice

Darius McNeill is one of the new players on the UTSA men's basketball roster. He is a 6-foot-3 senior transfer guard. - photo by Joe Alexander

High-energy guard Darius McNeill told reporters that he was relieved to receive clearance from the NCAA last week to play this season. He transferred into UTSA in the offseason after two years at Cal and one at SMU. – Photo by Joe Alexander

The UTSA Roadrunners hit the practice floor on Wednesday afternoon, opening preseason workouts confident that they can build on a winning tradition established by departed scoring stars Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace.

With Jackson and Wallace, the Roadrunners produced a 65-60 record in four seasons, including 38-32 in Conference USA. The team forged winning conference records in three of four years with the duo, who left UTSA as the Nos. 1 and 2 scorers in school history.

UTSA men's basketball coach Steve Henson at the first practice for the 2021-22 season at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Coach Steve Henson starts his sixth season at UTSA hoping to find a winning formula with a revamped roster. – photo by Joe Alexander

Prior to their arrival, UTSA basketball was down, riding a dismal stretch of five straight years with losing records, both overall and in conference. So, while some of their own fans may worry about how the team can replace the two, the new group is hardly fazed by the challenge.

UTSA sophomore Jordan Ivy-Curry says he thinks he and his teammates will be fine. Asked by a reporter what life will be like without Jackson and Wallace, Ivy-Curry didn’t hesitate with his response. “It’s going to be better,” he said.

“We’re going to be better,” said Ivy-Curry, who is projected as the team’s starter at shooting guard. “Even without Keaton and Jhivvan, you know, they were great scorers, but I feel like we have some great guys that came in. They can do the same.”

Based on how the team competed in a three-hour workout at the Convocation Center, it’s obvious that the Roadrunners are different, perhaps better defensively, with a fleet of lengthy, athletic forwards and guards.

It remains to be seen how they will fare, though, without the dominant backcourt scoring prowess that Jackson and Wallace supplied.

“Obviously it’s a different feel out there,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “A lot of new energy. A lot of new faces. A lot of hungry guys. A lot of guys that are going to be fighting for roles. They think they’re fighting for shots. They need to be fighting for roles.

“But I think you can sense the excitement, the newness, the freshness.”

Also, the quickness.

With a potential starting wing group that consists of Ivy-Curry, along with newcomers Darius McNeill and Dhieu Deing, both of them transfers, the Roadrunners showed in the first workout how they can get up and down the court in a hurry.

In addition, UTSA also exhibited a physical presence in the paint with 6-11 Jacob Germany and 6-6, 230-pound power forward Cedrick Alley Jr., both of them holdovers from last year’s team that finished 15-11 overall and 9-7 in the C-USA.

Scrimmage highlights that stood out on the first day included a fast break led by McNeill, who jetted down the court, passing a few defenders along the way.

When he reached the paint, the former two-year starter at Cal in the Pac-12 stopped and two-handed a bullet pass to the corner.

When the ensuing jump shot misfired, Deing swept in from the wing to tip it in.

Deing may have had the most and memorable moments of any of the newcomers on opening day. When he wasn’t spotting up to hit threes, he showed off deft ball-handling and passing skills.

On one play, he drove baseline, attracted a defender and dumped off a pass to Lachlan Bofinger for a layup.

Even with the offensive flair on display, players cheered loudest for good defensive plays, an emphasis from the start of team building during summer workouts.

A confident group is coming together with the season opener scheduled for Nov. 9 at home against Trinity.

“Oh, we going to be better,” Ivy-Curry said. “Just watch.”

Finding a home

McNeill said it felt good to get out on the floor with his new teammates. It felt especially good because, only last Friday, UTSA announced that he had been cleared by the NCAA to play immediately without having to sit out a year.

After two years at Cal, McNeill moved to Dallas in 2019 to attend SMU, hoping to be closer to his Houston home. Also, hoping to play right away. It didn’t happen. Denied by the NCAA, he sat out all of 2019-20 before finally getting a shot with the Mustangs last season.

Feeling restless last spring, McNeill elected to transfer again, and UTSA answered the call.

“When I first came in, it was like, up and down,” he said. “I was sad, because I didn’t want to go through the same thing I did at SMU. Nobody understands, you practice every day and you’re working for something and they tell you, ‘No.’

“It was like a hurt feeling. Now I get to play. My family gets to come see me play and I get to help the team win.”

Maturing as a player

Feeling good physically, 6-foot-11 center Jacob Germany also has a sense of ease that comes from being a veteran college player. A few years ago, he was a freshman, uncertain about his ability to play the college game at a high level.

Now, he’s a junior, feeling settled and more sure of himself.

“It’s definitely different,” he said. “Big mindset change. Confidence, you know, is a lot higher. Freshmen come in and most of ’em are going to be scared and just trying to fit in. I enjoy it more now. I feel more comfortable. It’s really nice, honestly.”

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