In the first few years of the Steve Henson era at UTSA, one characteristic of his core group of players stands out above all the rest. It’s resilience. Physically, the Roadrunners won’t overwhelm anyone. But, like a wily boxer backed up on the ropes, they will deliver a devastating counter-punch when least expected.
Take, for instance, last year’s trip to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders thrashed the Roadrunners by 24 points and dropped them to 10-11 overall and 3-5 in Conference USA. But on the second stop on the trip, they somehow came up off the mat and delivered a few haymakers, winning 82-70 at UAB.
The rest is history, as the Roadrunners finished 20-15, including 11-7 in conference — the first 20-win season at UTSA in seven years. This season, it’s happened again. Starting the year without their best player, they plunged into their first few games and came up looking like Jerry Quarry against Muhammad Ali. They were 0-5 and reeling.
Undaunted, players on a trip to Florida for the Gulf Coast Showcase talked among themselves and got some things straightened out. Since then, UTSA has ripped off a 10-2 record, including a seven-game winning streak and a school-record tying 4-0 start in conference.
Given all that, I talked to Coach Henson yesterday as he prepared his team for a return trip to Murfreesboro. I asked about his core group — Nick Allen, Giovanni De Nicolao, Byron Frohnen, Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace — and why he thinks those players are so resilient, so capable of handling adversity.
Here’s his response, in a Q&A format:
“A lot of factors there. It’s a very mature group. It’s a secure group. Got good leadership. And we’ve got so many guys whose only priority is finding a way to win. Doing whatever it takes to win. It’s a competitive, tough group. I’ve said it before. It’s not the type of group you’d literally want to get in an alley fight with. Basketball toughness, this group has it. They care about each other. There’s never been panic.
“This year, when we got off to a slow start, panic never set in. They knew we could right the ship. We just kept telling ’em, we have everything we need on this team to have a great year. And they believed that.
“Last year, you’re right on it. We lost a couple of games at home against teams that were not projected to be in the top half. We had an unbelievable stretch upcoming. Went to Middle Tennessee, and we were down 30 in that game. The next day, we had a great practice, a great film session.
“Pulled a few guys aside, the guys taking most of the shots. Jhivvan, Keaton and Deon (Lyle). Showed ’em their shots. Talked about getting better shots. Continuing to have that freedom, shooting it freely. Shooting it quickly. But let’s turn down a good shot for a great shot.”
So, part of it is just being coachable?
“Probably more succinct than what I just said, but, yeah. Willingness and coachability. For sure. Our season did turn at UAB last year. It was one of our best games of the year offensively and defensively. It was huge, because we were coming back home to play Marshall and Western Kentucky. With UTEP looming. So, our backs were against the wall. And our guys responded very, very well.”
When you’re recruiting, how do you find players who have those qualities?
“It’s hard. You watch body language. You talk to coaches. We try to recruit from successful programs. Guys who are used to winning. There’s great value in that. A lot of coaches value that. Sometimes, there’s going to be some unknowns. You just try to do as much work as you can … You want guys that just love to play, guys that are hungry. Guys that care about their teammates.”
It sounds as if some of the players got together after the loss to South Dakota State earlier this season and talked it over.
“When your players take ownership of your program, you’ve got a much better chance of being successful. I mean, we want it. We know they want it. They know coaches want it. When it comes from them, it’s got much more weight. And it doesn’t have to be upperclassmen.
“You know, leadership can come from anyone. When it comes from the players, it means a lot. Not surprised that they were frustrated (on the trip to Florida). But they also know that we could turn it around. (That) there was no doubt. I keep talking abouut panic. But there was no doubt. They believed.”
Last Saturday, UTSA played its trademark tough defense in defeating North Texas, 76-74. With the performance, the Roadrunners snapped the Mean Green’s eight-game winnning streak and took over first place in the conference.