UTSA players have cooked up Sunday dinner, and also team chemistry, in the early going

By Jerry Briggs
Special to The JB Replay

Scenes of bodies banging in the paint, players muscling for position on the perimeter and hard-fought possessions that ended with the ball caroming off the rim probably outnumbered the jump shots that swished through the nets on Tuesday afternoon at UTSA.

In the fourth week of time-limited, early-fall semester workouts, Steve Henson’s Roadrunners clearly remain something of a work in progress.

Jacob Germany, UTSA beat Denver 78-64 in men's basketball on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jacob Germany emerged last season as one of the best offensive centers in Conference USA. – photo by Joe Alexander

One thing is certain, though. In the time that players on Henson’s seventh team at UTSA have been together since June, they have bonded well together. This semester, they’re practicing on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, congregating in study hall on Wednesdays, and then going back into workouts on Thursdays and Fridays.

On Saturday? They’re thinking like a lot of other UTSA students at this time of the year. “We’ll probably drive up to Austin (for the game against Texas) and tailgate a little bit,” said senior center Jacob Germany, who may also have something planned for Sunday, as well.

In weeks past, players have met at his apartment to talk over spiritual matters, not to mention chowing down on some of the 6-foot-11 Oklahoman’s finest culinary offerings. “We’ll have steak sandwiches, or spaghetti,” said Germany, who is the son of a chef and knows his way around the kitchen.

Last winter and spring, there were many days and nights when Germany didn’t look like he was having a whole lot of fun, and most of it likely stemmed from losing. Plagued with injuries, academic casualties and Covid-19 disruptions, the Roadrunners lost 22 games.

Germany enjoyed a fine season individually, averaging 15.2 points and 7.3 rebounds. Though he made only honorable mention all conference, it was easy to see that his offensive game was one of the most advanced — if not the most advanced — of anyone playing his position in the C-USA.

But not even on nights when he’d go for 20-point, double-doubles did he seem as if he was enjoying himself all that much. In contrast, his easy-going demeanor on Tuesday afternoon was telling. He smiled easily. He just seemed at peace as he surveyed the scene at the Convocation Center.

Isaiah Addo-Ankrah, a walk-on who won a scholarship over the summer, took shot after shot on one end of the floor. By himself, he kept firing away. On the other end, guard John Buggs III, a newcomer, was also doing a solo routine, pumping up jumpers after everyone else had repaired to the dressing room.

“Look at those guys, out here 45 minutes after, still working,” Germany said.

This time last year, UTSA’s team was just hard to analyze. The key players were Jordan Ivy-Curry, Dhieu Deing, Cedrick Alley and Germany. It wasn’t as good as the 2017- to 2021-era Roadrunners team that featured guards Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace.

But it looked to me as if it could be a unit that would at least win half its games. To me, it looked good enough on paper to come out of the regular season, perhaps in the middle of the pack, with a chance to get hot at the conference tournament. As everyone knows, though, the 2021-22 Roadrunners never got close to that level.

And from last year’s nucleus, only Germany remains. In some respects, that’s sort of a frightening prospect. If you lose Ivy-Curry, Deing and Alley, you lose scoring, rebounding and athleticism, for sure. But I’m not so sure that this new team, perhaps with less overall athleticism, doesn’t have the capability to be more successful.

Maybe much more so.

Why? For one thing, it’s got a pass-first point guard in Japhet Meador and a physical two-guard in Buggs. Neither is comparable to Ivy-Curry or Deing in athletic ability. But in skill level and savvy? From early indications, both have displayed solid individual talents that could, in turn, make it easier for talent around them to flourish.

On Tuesday afternoon, at least, two returning players that struggled for much of last year looked much more settled and improved. Senior guard Erik Czumbel had a really good practice. Six-foot-seven sophomore forward Lamin Sabally also shot the ball with authority.

In one sequence, he took a shorter defender down to the low post and scored over the top. In another, he pulled up and swished a couple from the perimeter. Forward Aleu Aleu, beset with injuries since he arrived last year, didn’t look great but I’ve always thought he could be major factor if he can get healthy and into top shape.

Germany, for his part, said he thinks 6-foot-9 sophomore Josh Farmer has made the most progress of any of the returning players.

The key to it all may be Meador, a Florida native. It’s arguable that UTSA hasn’t had a player with distribution skills like him since Giovanni De Nicolao, who turned pro in 2018. “Japhet is crazy good,” Germany said. “When he comes off screens, he sees everything. His vision is really good.”

Seeing the floor is one thing. Seeing into the future in college basketball is another. It’s not easy, particularly at the mid-major level, because there are so many variable. But at least in mid-September, the leading returning scorer on the Roadrunners has a good feeling that bonding and team-building over the past few months could make a difference next March.

“We’re a lot closer this year,” Germany said. “It’s kind of refreshing.”

All together now — UTSA hopes to build on intangibles and move past troubled times

UTSA men's basketball player Massal Diouf at the Convocation Center on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA freshman Massal Diouf, from The Netherlands, played well Wednesday afternoon in a series of informal pickup games at the Convocation Center. – Photo by Joe Alexander

By Jerry Briggs
For The JB Replay

Acknowledging a “bad taste” left over from a disappointing 10-win season, seventh-year UTSA basketball coach Steve Henson has expressed guarded optimism about his latest work-in-progress, a squad buoyed by senior center Jacob Germany, an infusion of backcourt talent and a feeling that the group is pulling together as one.

Steve Henson. UAB beat UTSA 68-56 on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Conference USA men's basketball at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Seventh-year UTSA basketball coach Steve Henson says he likes the feel around his program, with everyone pulling together. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Henson didn’t mention the word redemption. But he said he hasn’t been as hungry or as excited to win since he took the UTSA job in 2016. “You have to turn the page, just move on (and) get that bad taste out of your mouth,” the coach said in an interview at his office on Tuesday.

Derailed by adversity, including injuries, Covid-19 disruptions, a senior starter lost to academics and issues related to key scorers who couldn’t stay on the same page with the coaches, Henson’s sixth team at UTSA finished 10-22 overall and 3-15 in Conference USA.

It was a humbling experience for the coach, who had guided the Roadrunners to winning seasons in three of the previous four years, including a 20-win season in 2017-18.

“Going back and watching some of those games (from last year, on tape), it doesn’t get any better three, four, five months later,” he said. “It was frustrating to see us play that way. So, there’s that motivating factor.”

The other primary motivation is a new collection of players that Henson really likes.

“Eight or nine weeks (in the summer) with these guys, with one week off in the middle, they’re just so enjoyable to be around,” the coach said. “They come to the office. They enjoy each other. They have a good time.

“They work. They invest. They put the time in. The energy level is terrific with this group.”

The newcomers

The Roadrunners reeled in five new players last spring, and two of them could take on starters’ roles and significant playing time when the season tips off in November.

Junior guards Japhet Medor and John Buggs III have shown promise. Medor, a 5-foot-11 Floridian with quickness and an ability to create in the paint, will compete at point guard. Buggs is a Louisiana native who can do a little of everything as a shooting guard.

UTSA men's basketball player Japhet Medor at the Convocation Center on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA newcomer Japhet Medor, a junior transfer, is expected to contend for a starter’s role at point guard. He’s known as an effective distributor, but he also displayed in informal scrimmages on Wednesday a smooth stroke on his jump shot. – Photo by Joe Alexander

“Our juco guards are extremely mature,” Henson said. “They just absolutely understand how to be great teammates and leaders … We’re counting on those two to have a big impact on us in terms of minutes and roles but also in intangible things, as well.”

Another guard, 6-5 freshman DJ Richards, is from Cypress Creek High School in the Houston area. He prepped at Montverde Academy in Florida last season.

Hoping to earn playing time in the post is freshman Massal Diouf (6-9, 235) from Gouda, The Netherlands. He’s played with U-16 and U-18 Dutch national teams and attended Western Canada Prep Academy.

Seven-foot Carlton Linguard Jr., who played at Stevens High School in San Antonio, isn’t academically eligible yet. Linguard (7-0, 220) isn’t expected to play for at least the first semester. At the outset of his college career, he had one solid season at Temple Junior College and spent past two in a lesser role at Kansas State in the Big 12.

Big man returns

Germany averaged 15.2 points and 7.3 rebounds last year as a junior. Even though the Roadrunners struggled, the 6-foot-11 Oklahoman emerged as one of the best offensive post players in the C-USA. Germany displayed an expanded array of skills, throwing hook shots from 10 and 12 feet while improving his scoring average by five points from his sophomore year.

Earning a scholarship

Coming off a surprisingly strong second season in the program, three-point shooting specialist Isaiah Addo-Ankrah was awarded a scholarship this summer. The 6-foot-6 Houston native broke out in January of last season by hitting three 3-pointers off the bench at UTEP and five at Rice. He is classified as a sophomore.

Getting healthy

Multi-skilled Aleu Aleu has been cleared for contact work when the team begins its initial phase of fall-semester practice on Monday, Henson said. Limited by leg injuries and missing time due to Covid-19, the 6-foot-8 wing played only 10 games for the Roadrunners last season.

Speculation

Players capable of handling point guard duties this year might include the likes of Japhet, senior Erik Czumbel and sophomore Christian Tucker. At the two-guard, look for Buggs, Czumbel and Richards. Wing forwards would include Addo-Ankrah, Aleu, Lamin Sabally and Azavier Johnson. A power forward group might be comprised of Lachlan Bofinger, Josh Farmer, Aleu and Addo-Ankrah. At center? Germany, Farmer, Diouf and Linguard.

The schedule

UTSA will host the Schreiner Mountaineers on Nov. 2 in an exhibition, according to the schedule announced on Tuesday.

UTSA men's basketball player John Buggs III at the Convocation Center on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA newcomer John Buggs III has impressed coaches with his skills and leadership. The Louisiana native averaged 15.2 points and shot 47.3 percent from three last year at Hill College. – Photo by Joe Alexander

The regular season will commence on Nov. 7 at home against Trinity. On Nov. 11, the Roadrunners will play on the road against the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders, who in the postseason last spring swept to the Southland Conference title en route to the NCAA tournament.

UTSA returns home to play the St. Mary’s Rattlers on Nov. 14. A homestand continues with a visit from Sun Belt regular-season champion Texas State on Nov. 17, and from Prairie View A&M on Nov. 22.

In the 210 San Antonio Shootout, UTSA hosts Grambling State on Nov. 25, Dartmouth on Nov. 27 and Incarnate Word on Nov. 28.

Hitting the road, the Roadrunners play at the University of New Mexico on Dec. 10 and at Utah on Dec. 13. The Utah game will be the only one in the regular season against a power conference program. In a final tune up before conference, UTSA hosts Bethune Cookman on Dec. 18. C-USA play starts early, on Dec. 22, with a visit from the North Texas Mean Green.