San Antonio’s Lutz, Jackson return to NCAA tournament with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

Islanders coach Steve Lutz. A&M-Corpus Christi beat UTSA 77-58 on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Islanders coach Steve Lutz, a 1991 East Central High School graduate, has notched NCAA tournament berths in each of his first two seasons as a college head coach. – File photo by Joe Alexander

By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay

The Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders are returning to the NCAA tournament.

Looking for the first NCAA victory in program history, Steve Lutz-coached A&M-Corpus Christi will play in one of the First Four games at Dayton, Ohio. The Islanders (23-10) will take on the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks (19-16) at 5:40 p.m. Tuesday on truTV.

A&M-Corpus Christi guard Jalen Jackson playing at the UTSA Convocation Center on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. - photo by Joe Alexander

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi guard Jalen Jackson played in San Antonio at Wagner High School and led the Thunderbirds to the 2019 Class 5A state title game. – File photo by Joe Alexander

Lutz, a San Antonian and a 1991 East Central High School graduate, is two-for-two in his head coaching career, leading the Islanders to back-to-back postseason titles in the Southland Conference.

After claiming the SLC trophies, he has also earned automatic bids to the NCAA tournament each time.

Last week, San Antonio’s Jalen Jackson emerged as the SLC tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Jackson, a senior point guard from Wagner High School, had 17 points and six assists in the title-game victory over Northwestern State (La.).

The rise of the Islanders under Lutz has been impressive. A&M-Corpus Christi had lost 73 games over four seasons before the school hired Lutz, a former player at East Central and Texas Lutheran and an assistant coach at the University of the Incarnate Word.

In 2021-22, his first team at A&M-Corpus Christi finished 23-12. They finished fourth in the SLC regular season and then won three games in three days for the postseason crown. Going on to Dayton for an NCAA First-Four matchup against Texas Southern, a battle between No. 16 seeds, the Islanders lost 76-67.

This year, with essentially the same core of players — forward Isaac Mushila and guards Terrion Murdix, Trevian Tennyson and Jackson — A&M-Corpus Christi backed up last year’s strong finish with a 23-win season, and counting

In the SLC race, the Islanders went 14-4 to finish first in the conference, earning a double-bye though the tournament. In the tournament, at Katy, they defeated McNeese and Northwestern State to claim back-to-back bids to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.

Their only previous NCAA appearance came in 2007 when they swept to a postseason SLC crown and lost to Wisconsin, 76-63, in the round of 64.

This year, the Islanders hope to win their first NCAA game against a Southeast Missouri State program that finished the regular season with a 15-16 record, before reeling off four victories in four days for the Ohio Valley Conference postseason crown. The winner between SEMO and A&M-Corpus Christi will advance to play Alabama, the top seed in the NCAA South region and the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, on Thursday night in Birmingham, Ala.

Lutz paid his dues in the profession to snag his first head coaching job in NCAA Division I. He worked as an assistant coach at UIW, Garden City Community College (Kan.), Stephen F. Austin, SMU, Creighton and Purdue.

At Creighton of the Big East, he worked on Greg McDermott’s staff and helped lead the BlueJays to four NCAA appearances.

At Purdue of the Big Ten, under Matt Painter, he coached in three more NCAAs including one run to the Elite Eight in 2019.

Jackson was a four-year starter at Wagner and, under coach Rodney Clark, the two helped propel the Thunderbirds to the 2019 Class 5A state championship game. In a heartbreaker, Wagner lost the state title match, 77-64, to Mansfield Timberview at the Alamodome.

Transitioning to college basketball, Jackson started his career at North Texas. He spent two years in the program and was part of the 2021 squad that won the Conference USA postseason title. The No. 13 seed Mean Green upset the fourth-seeded Purdue Boilermakers in the first round.

For the 2021-22 season, Lutz took the job at A&M-Corpus Christi and Jackson joined him. In their time together, the Islanders have posted a 46-22 record, with two NCAA berths. Now they have a chance to make a little more history Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio.

San Antonio-area players

In the NCAA men’s basketball tournament

Zach Clemence, Kansas, a 6-10 sophomore forward from Antonian HS, Findlay Prep (Nev.) and Sunrise Christian Academy (Kan.) Upcoming: Top-seeded Kansas plays Howard Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa. Clemence played as a freshman at Antonian in the 2017-18 season before going to prep school. In two years with the Jayhawks, he has played 42 games, including 18 this season. This year, he averaged 1.4 points in 5.9 minutes.

Vincent Iwuchukwu, Southern Cal, a 7-foot-1 freshman center, formerly of Cole HS, La Lumiere, Ind., Montverde Academy, Fla., Southern California Academy. Upcoming: Tenth-seeded Southern Cal will play No. 7 Michigan State Friday in Columbus, Ohio. After suffering a medical scare last summer, Iwuchukwu returned in January to play 14 games for the Trojans, averaging 5.4 points. He hasn’t played in a few weeks because of a reported back injury.

Jalen Jackson, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, a 5-11 senior guard from Wagner HS, transfer from North Texas. Upcoming: A&M-Corpus plays Southeast Missouri State in a battle of 16 seeds on Tuesday in Dayton. The winner advances to play top-seeded Alabama on Thursday in a round-of-64 game at Birmingham, Ala. Jackson started at point guard and averaged 7 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists.

Langston Love, Baylor, a 6-5 redshirt freshman guard, formerly of Steele HS, Montverde Academy, Fla. Upcoming: Third-seeded Baylor plays UC Santa Barbara on Friday in Denver in an NCAA South region game. Utilized primarily off the bench, Love averaged 6 points and 2.2 rebounds in his first season after missing all of last year with a torn ACL. He hasn’t played since Feb. 27 with an eye injury.

Kevin McCullar, Jr., Kansas, a 6-6 senior guard, formerly of Wagner High School, a transfer from Texas Tech. Upcoming: Top-seeded Jayhawks plays the Howard University Bison Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa, in the NCAA West region. In his first year on the team, McCullar has been one of the key players on the Jayhawks, averaging 10.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.0 steals. He sat out the Big 12 tournament final with back soreness.

Austin Nunez, Arizona State, a 6-2 freshman guard from Wagner HS. Upcoming: Arizona State will play as an 11-seed against Nevada in the First Four in Dayton on Wednesday. The winner advances to face six-seed TCU in Denver on Friday in the round of 64. Nunez played in 28 games for the Bobby Hurley-coached Sun Devils in his first year out of high school. He averaged 4.5 points in 16.3 minutes. Nunez has not played since Feb. 18 at home against Utah and has been out the last six games, including two in the Pac-12 tournament, with a concussion.

(Players with San Antonio roots who attended high school out of the area)

Micah Peavy, TCU, a 6-7 junior forward from Duncanville, transfer from Texas Tech). Upcoming: Six seed TCU will meet either Arizona State or Nevada on Friday in Denver in the round of 64. Peavy is the son of Duncanville coach David Peavy, an Alamo Heights HS grad who attended UTSA and graduated from Incarnate Word. Micah Peavy led Duncanville to a 6A state title in 2019 and in 2020 was the state’s player of the year. Now in his second year at TCU under Jamie Dixon, he’s averaging 7.3 points and 3.1 rebounds for the Horned Frogs.

Other SA-area players

On NCAA Division I rosters

Marco Anthony, Utah, a 6-6 senior guard from Holmes, formerly of Virginia and Utah State

Adam Benhayoune, LSU, a 6-5 sophomore guard from O’Connor HS

Trey Blackmore, Cal State-Fullerton, a 6-2 freshman guard from Cole HS

Marques Gates, Houston Christian, a 6-0 redshirt freshman guard from Clemens HS

Ja’Sean Jackson, Abilene Christian, a 6-0 sophomore guard from Wagner HS

Ellis Jefferson, Lamar, a 6-0 senior guard from Brandeis HS

Gerald Liddell, Detroit Mercy, a 6-8 senior forward from Steele HS; transfer from Texas, Alabama State

Carlton Linguard Jr., UTSA, a 7-foot junior center from Stevens HS, transfer from Temple JC and Kansas State

Silas Livingston, University of the Incarnate Word, a 5-9 freshman guard from Cole

Jayden Martinez, North Texas, a 6-7 senior forward from Steele; transfer from New Hampshire

Jordan Mason, Texas State, a 6-2 freshman guard from Clark

Ze’Rik Onyema, UTEP, a 6-8 sophomore forward from Jay HS

Dre Ray, Incarnate Word, a 5-9 freshman guard from Cole HS

Brendan Wenzel, Wyoming, a 6-7 guard from O’Connor HS; a transfer from Utah

Dalen Whitlock, Texas State, a 6-4 sophomore guard from Clark HS