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.”

Stormy weather for UTSA hoops? Not likely

UTSA center Jacob Germany throws down a dunk with 2:18 left to give UTSA a 69-65 lead in a 77-69 victory over North Texas on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA center Jacob Germany is expected to emerge as one of the focal points of an offense that may take some time to find an identity. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Sitting on the living room couch this morning, it’s still dark outside, and I hear rolling thunder and cracks of lightning. Also, some wind gusts and much-needed rain.

With a cup of coffee in reach, I started thinking. This nice little break from our weeks-long streak of late summer sunshine has got to have some alternate meaning, right?

Jordan Ivy-Curry. UTSA beat Southern Miss 70-64 in Conference USA action at the Convocation Center on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jordan Ivy-Curry, who averaged 7.2 points last season, likely will take on more of a scoring load this year as a sophomore. — Photo by Joe Alexander

How about a couple of possible narratives related to the start of UTSA men’s basketball practice, which gets underway later this afternoon at the Convocation Center?

Is nature’s noisy wake-up call a portent of what we can expect this season from, say, senior and first-year point guard Darius McNeill, throwing lobs for resounding dunks to junior center Jacob Germany?

Or, perhaps, from 230-pound Cedric Alley Jr., rumbling into the paint for rebounds in traffic?

Last season, we saw glimpses of potential from guard Jordan Ivy-Curry, who came on late to stoke optimism about the emergence of another high-scoring UTSA backcourt player.

Surely, “Juice,” now a sophomore, will supply some lightning of his own in coming months.

Then again, you have to wonder also about the flip side of our weather-related metaphor, because UTSA basketball historically tends to take you on the emotional roller coaster.

Could the morning cloud-burst actually be a sign of stormy weather to come for coach Steve Henson’s program?

After all, two of the best players — if not the two best players — in school history are no longer on the team.

Cedrick Alley Jr. UTSA beat UTEP 86-79 in a Conference USA game on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021 at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Cedrick Alley Jr., slowed by injuries last season, has impressed coaches during preseason conditioning. — Photo by Joe Alexander

Both Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace combined to score more than 4,500 points between them over the past four years before undertaking a journey that both hope leads to careers in professional basketball.

So, replacing those two will not be easy.

Henson, though, doesn’t sound like a guy who is concerned about a drop off from the past four seasons.

During a month of conditioning with the new group, he generally liked what he saw. Fierce competition, mainly.

With several newcomers, individual roles were being defined on a daily basis, so the level of intensity was high.

At the same time, Henson does have questions about the team’s identity and what it might look like come next March.

“It always evolves,” Henson said last week. “Typically, you go in and you have an idea what it’s going to look like. The more new guys you have, the more questions it would be. The commitment to the defensive end seems to be pretty strong.

“That gives us the best chance to win games.

“Offensively, there may be more questions. How are we really going to find our way offensively? We’ve got guys who can score. Juice has already proven that. Jacob’s already proven that. (Newcomer) Dhieu (Deing) has already scored at a high level (in junior college).

“So, I’m not worried about it. I just don’t know exactly what our offensive identity will end up looking like.”

C-USA honors go to UTSA’s Jackson, Wallace, Ivy-Curry

Jordan Ivy-Curry. UTSA beat Southwestern Adventist from Keene, Texas, 123-43 in a non-conference game on Thursday, March 4, 2021, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jordan Ivy-Curry finished the regular season fourth on the team in scoring at 7.1 points per game. — Photo by Joe Alexander

Haunted by poor shooting through his first eight games in college basketball, UTSA freshman Jordan Ivy-Curry eventually re-discovered his touch.

As a result, Ivy-Curry started to flourish as an all-around player in his first year with the Roadrunners, and on Monday, he joined seniors Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace in winning honors announced by Conference USA.

For the third year in a row, Jackson was named first-team all-conference. Also for the third straight year, Wallace was named to the second team. This time, they were joined by Ivy-Curry, who was named to the C-USA all-freshman team.

The Roadrunners, one of the hottest teams in the conference, were scheduled to practice in San Antonio for the last time Monday afternoon before boarding a bus bound for Frisco. They’ll work out again Tuesday in Frisco as the tournament opens at The Star with preliminary round games.

On Wednesday afternoon, they Roadrunners will play the Charlotte 49ers in a second-round game.

‘Juice’ makes his mark

In the first third of a 24-game season, Ivy-Curry had yet to live up to his reputation as a high-octane scorer. As a high school senior, he averaged more than 30 points a game at La Marque. But with the Roadrunners, his shot would not fall — at least, not initially.

In his first eight games, Ivy-Curry was playing off the bench and shooting a meager 32.6 from the field. From three-point range, he was way off the mark — 0-for-13. All that started to change on Jan. 2. ‘Juice’ hit a three out of the corner and finished 5 of 14 overall in a road loss at Rice. Coaches stayed with him, and he kept getting better.

For the season, he played in all 24 games, averaging 7.1 points and 2.8 rebounds in 19.7 minutes. He was also good in terms of moving the ball on offense and in defending the perimeter. Down the stretch, his three-point shooting touch returned. In his last 16 games, he hit 22 of 45 from distance for 48.9 percent.

Rodriguez improving

UTSA coach Steve Henson said in a zoom conference with reporters that junior forward Adrian Rodriguez has practiced well. “In another 2 or 3 days, hopefully he’ll be close to 100 percent,” the coach said.

Rodriguez hurt his knee on Feb. 6 in at Florida International and sat out the next three games. On Feb. 27, he played two minutes at home against the UAB Blazers. Last Thursday, Henson played him 16 minutes in UTSA’s tune-up against Southwestern Adventist. Rodriguez had 12 points and seven rebounds.

Trying to make history

For the Roadrunners to claim the C-USA’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, they will need to win four games in four days in the pressure cooker of a single-elimination event.

UTSA has never executed such a four-in-four conference tournament run in its previous 39 seasons of basketball.

In 1988, a Ken Burmeister-coached UTSA squad claimed the school’s first NCAA berth when it won three games in three days to claim the Trans America Athletic Conference title at Daytona Beach, Fla.

In 1999, the first of two Tim Carter-coached NCAA teams won two games in two days for the Southland championship in Shreveport, La.

In 2004, Carter took his team to the NCAA dance once again as Southland titlists with three wins in five days. The Roadrunners won in San Antonio, in Hammond, La., and then in San Antonio again (against Stephen F. Austin).

In 2011, the Brooks Thompson-coached Roadrunners won three games in four days to win a Southland championship at the Merrell Center in Katy.

Coming up

Conference USA tournament. UTSA vs. Charlotte, Thursday at 5:30 p.m., at The Star in Frisco.

Records

UTSA 14-10, 9-7
Charlotte 9-15, 5-11

True to the nickname, ‘Juice’ brings a spark to UTSA

Jordan Ivy-Curry. UTSA beat North Texas 77-69 in a Conference USA game on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA freshman Jordan Ivy-Curry averaged 31.5 points last year as a senior for the Class 4A La Marque High School Cougars. — Photo by Joe Alexander

His given name is Jordan Ivy-Curry. But all his friends at UTSA call him “Juice.” As in, plug him into a basketball game and feel the electricity. How did he get the nickname?

“Around seventh or eighth grade, playing at a park in the neighborhood,” the UTSA freshman said. “You know, I was playing against some grown-ups. Shooting the ball. Making a lot of shots. It was like, ‘You got the juice.’ So ever since then, they been calling me ‘Juice.’ ”

Getting a nickname is a badge of honor in the Houston area, where Ivy-Curry grew up. Back in the ‘60s, they had David “Big Daddy” Lattin, who went on to lead the Texas Western College Miners to the 1966 NCAA title.

In the ‘80s, they had Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon on a couple of Final Four teams at the University of Houston, along with Clyde “The Glide” Drexler and Larry “Mr. Mean” Michaux.

Ivy-Curry started to turn heads on the playground when he was 11. Within a few years, he gravitated to games with players much older. With high school-age players. Though he was under-sized, he challenged himself.

“Yeah, I got some buckets,” Ivy-Curry recalled. “Two from half court.”

Years later, playing for the La Marque High School Cougars, “Juice” continued to shoot it. He had the green light and the skills to rack up more than 2,000 points in his career, eclipsing 50 points in a game three times as a senior last season.

At UTSA, the scoring machines in residence are seniors by the name of Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace. “Juice” plays off the bench in a supporting role for the Roadrunners, averaging a modest 5.8 points in 15.5 minutes per game.

But to a certain extent, those numbers belie his value to the team.

With the Roadrunners scheduled to play on Friday and Saturday at Louisiana Tech, the freshman has emerged as a player who has seen court time in the second half in all four of UTSA’s Conference USA games, including crunch-time minutes in a 77-69 victory over North Texas last Saturday.

In one memorable sequence, sophomore guard Erik Czumbel fired a skip pass cross the court to Ivy-Curry. As a North Texas defender ran at the UTSA freshman, he dribbled into open space and lobbed it up for center Jacob Germany, who dunked it.

“It felt good,” Ivy-Curry said. “I felt like, when I made that play, it brought the team energy up, the crowd energy up. We just had the momentum our way. Just a great feeling. Even though I had zero points (in the game) I felt like I had five points on that play.”

Germany called Ivy-Curry “a great player,” who will get better as the years go by. “In high school, he was a huge scorer, and I could see him doing that here in a year or two,” the sophomore from Oklahoma said. “For him, it’s just experience and confidence.”

When told that Ivy-Curry had mentioned playing against older players as a young man, Henson smiled, because he has seen some of that competitive fire from him in practices already.

“He’s got that right level of confidence, swag,” Henson said. “He respects Jhivvan and Keaton. He tries to get after ‘em in practice every day. He’s usually matched up with one of those two guys, and he fights and competes. Got a great deal of confidence. He just plays. It’s kind of refreshing.”

Continued Henson: “He reads situations well. His instincts offensively are very, very good. Defensively, he’s conscientious. He’s trying to learn our schemes. Trying to work on his habits. Yeah, he’s fun. He’s fun at practice.

“(We) had a practice prior to North Texas, and at the end of a segment he rattled off 10 straight. Two threes and two twos. Just like it was nothing. It doesn’t really even phase us that he does that. He’s just such a natural scorer.”

He is the “Juice.”

Coming up

UTSA at Louisiana Tech, 6:30 p.m., Friday
UTSA at Louisiana Tech, 6 p.m., Saturday

Records

UTSA 5-6, 1-3
Louisiana Tech 9-4, 2-2