UTSA trying to find a spark against North Texas

Jhivvan Jackson. UTSA beat Lamar 88-66 on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jhivvan Jackson has averaged 16 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists for the Roadrunners. But he says he is ‘struggling’ with his shot. — Photo by Joe Alexander

More than a few questions linger for the UTSA Roadrunners as they prepare to host the defending Conference USA champion North Texas Mean Green on Friday night.

After losing two games to open C-USA play last week at Rice, can they finally find some consistency to get on a hot streak?

Keaton Wallace scored 12 points as UTSA beat Lamar 88-66 on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Keaton Wallace enters a two-game series against North Texas averaging 13.2 points. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Can they find it with Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace scoring a combined 29.5 points per game, roughly two thirds of their output from last year?

In 2019-20, the dynamic twosome was the highest scoring backcourt in the nation, averaging a combined 45.6. So, yes, it probably would help if they could get closer to that number.

But even if they can regain the magic in a two-game series against North Texas, will it be enough to beat a team that won 20 games last year?

Against UTSA (4-5), Grant McCasland-coached North Texas (4-4) hopes to get off to a fast start in an effort to repeat its 14-4 run through the conference a year ago.

“They won the league last year and they got a lot of those guys back,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “The challenges they presented last year are here again.”

The talented Mean Green play a methodical pace on offense and then, on the other end, they try to force poor possessions by cutting off passing lanes and keeping the ball on one side of the floor.

Anchored by a couple of 6-foot-10 post players, North Texas used the approach to hammer UTSA by 20 points last year in Denton.

“We’re excited to play them,” Jackson said. “I think everybody wants that challenge to play the conference champions. So, we’re getting ready for them. They’re going to come over here, and they’re going to get our best.”

Jackson poured in 37 and Wallace had 24 last year in Denton.

But UTSA is, by design, a different team this season, with more balance to foster more sustained success. Jackson averages 16.3, Wallace 13.2 and center Jacob Germany 10.3.

Forward Eric Parrish (8) and back-up post Luka Barisic (7.3) are also involved in a fast-paced attack.

“I mean, everybody’s making plays,” Jackson said. “Kea, he’s starting to get it going. We got Luka making shots. We got Jacob. He’s scoring at a high percentage.

“We got EZ (Erik) Czumbel. He’s shooting almost 50 percent from the three-point line. We got Juice (Jordan Ivy-Curry), who comes in and gives us a stretch of points and hustle plays.

Added Jackson: “I think I’m doing a great job, as well, just looking for people. I mean, I think everybody is kind of getting the shot that they want. We just got to defend better.”

The Owls beat the Roadrunners 95-86 and 84-69 last week in Houston.

Though defense continues to be the focus for UTSA this year, the Roadrunners likely need to get much better shooting out of their best two players if they want to make a run at the upper level of the C-USA Western Division.

Jackson (43.6 percent from the field, 28.3 from three) and Wallace (40.2 and 31) are much better shooters than those numbers would indicate.

“I’m struggling offensively,” Jackson said. “But I’m getting my teammates open. Getting them some good looks. I’m running the point. So, running a lot of the plays for my teammates.

“I’m good, you know. I’m going to get on my rhythm. I’m not really stressed about that. We just focusing on getting better on defense.”

Cedrick Alley Jr. UTSA wanted to emphasize defense on Friday in a 91-62 victory over Sul Ross State at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

The status of injured Cedrick Alley Jr. is in question. Alley sat out last Saturday at Rice. — Photo by Joe Alexander

A victory would help to smooth out most problems, and Wallace said he’s confident that the Roadrunners can get that done against a team that will be playing its conference opener.

“They got us pretty good last year,” he said. “We scored a lot of points … We couldn’t stop them.

“We going to make some small tweaks to our game on defense, and they’re going to translate to (this) game.”

North Texas, scheduled to tip off C-USA play last week in Alabama at UAB, had its openers postponed because of virus issues with the Blazers.

Records

North Texas 4-4, 0-0
UTSA 4-5, 0-2

Coming up

North Texas at UTSA, Friday, 6 p.m.
North Texas at UTSA, Saturday, 3 p.m.

Steve Henson: UTSA in ‘pretty good shape’ physically

The UTSA Roadrunners experienced a few injury scares in their Dec. 22 home game against the Lamar Cardinals.

Jhivvan Jackson, Cedric Alley and Keaton Wallace all were slowed in the second half of UTSA’s last game before the Christmas break.

But on UTSA coach Steve Henson’s zoom call with reporters Wednesday, he said his team is in “pretty good shape” leading into Friday afternoon’s Conference USA opener against the Rice Owls.

“Today, you see a guy get bumped, knocked down,” Henson said. “Our guys are diving on the floor more, which is good. Our guys are playing hard. They’re getting treatment with (the trainer), but nothing of any real concern at this point.”

UTSA plays at Rice on back-to-back days, on Friday and Saturday.

“Adrian Rodriguez, I think, has got the most significant lingering injury,” Henson said. “He continues to feel good. Every day that goes by, he feels better. Healthier.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate in that regard. All the way through (the season), really. With Covid, with the normal sickness and injuries. We’ve had a lot of guys at practice every day.

“Like anybody, we’ve had a few sprained ankles. A few guys have had to miss a few practices. But, we’ve been pretty healthy.”

Coming up

UTSA at Rice, Friday and Saturday
North Texas at UTSA, Jan. 8 and Jan. 9

Records

UTSA 4-3
Rice 6-2

‘Weird situations’ loom with C-USA schedule

Because of preseason adjustments designed to cut down on travel during the pandemic, UTSA is now scheduled to play only nine C-USA opponents during the regular season.

UTSA (4-3) will play each opponent twice, starting with a pair of road games Friday and Saturday in Houston against Rice (6-2).

“We’re thrilled that we were able to get in seven non-conference games,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said Wednesday. “We made the decision to not play in a (multi-team event). We were able to get our games in. Now we’re hoping to get a bunch of conference games in and continue to play better.

“But, yeah, there’s going to be some weird situations. Not playing people in your own league is very odd, obviously. If there is cancellations or postponements, that’s going to throw in some more questions as we move along.

“But you just can’t waste energy worrying about those things that are out of our control.”

UTSA is set to play against all six of its C-USA West opponents, plus FIU, Florida Atlantic and Charlotte from the East.

It’s an open question as to whether UTSA has advantage in not having to play Western Kentucky, Marshall and Old Dominion. North Texas, for instance, will play two-game sets against Old Dominion and Marshall on the road and Western Kentucky at home.

“You know, if you start doing that, you drive yourself crazy,” Henson said. “I mean, we’ve had some pretty good success against … some of those teams. We’ve lost some (games) against teams in the bottom half. We struggled against some of those teams.

“The fact that we don’t have to travel all the way to those places is kind of nice. I know that. Those are some rough road trips. But our guys get excited to play some of those opponents.

“If we have a good season and then are denied an opportunity to play them, I think our guys, they’ll probably be disappointed that we don’t get to play them.

“But, I think the league is doing the best they can. They’ve tried to set up a lot of regional opportunities. Obviously, going all the way to Florida, there’s some things that don’t quite make sense.

“But again, it’s hard. You lay out the blue print, try to factor in 14 (teams), it gets really, really hard.”

C-USA basketball will move to divisional standings

Conference USA men’s and women’s basketball will move to a divisional standings format for the 2020-21 season, as approved by the league’s Board of Directors.

The move was announced Wednesday, two days before the start of the C-USA conference season.

C-USA will feature East and West divisions and will crown divisional champions at the conclusion of conference play in March.

Standings will be based on overall conference winning percentage. In addition, divisional seeding will be utilized for the C-USA Men’s and Women’s Championships. A cross-divisional bracket will be used to determine first-round matchups.

The conference announced the divisions as follows:

East — Charlotte, FIU, Florida Atlantic, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion and Western Kentucky.

West — Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Rice, Southern Miss, UAB, UTEP and UTSA.

UTSA men’s coach Steve Henson said “there are a lot of advantages” to having divisions in a 14-team league.

“Over the years, conferences have continued to get bigger and bigger,” Henson said. “Years ago, a seven-team league was not uncommon. Seven- or eight-teams in the league was kind of normal. Having divisions can provide a lot of positives. It can give you key games late in conference play.

“The way we’re doing it this year, we’re just playing a schedule but then ranking the results based on divisions. It’s kind of a unique way of looking at it this year.”

UTSA men’s and women’s conference competition begins this weekend, with the men set for back-to-back games at Rice on Friday and Saturday. Also Friday and Saturday, the UTSA women will host Rice.

The C-USA Basketball Championships will be held at The Star, in Frisco, from March 10-13. This will be the fourth year that the event will be held in Frisco.

Struggling UTSA hopes to bounce back against Sul Ross

Coming off two straight losses, one of them painfully lopsided, the UTSA Roadrunners return home to face the Sul Ross State Lobos tonight at the Convocation Center.

Tip off is scheduled for 6 p.m.

UTSA (1-2) will play against Division III Sul Ross (1-2) less than 24 hours after falling 105-66 on the road at Oklahoma.

The Roadrunners opened the season last Friday with a 97-71 victory over Division II UT Permian Basin.

By the next night, adversity struck. The Roadrunners were set back with an 81-64 road loss last Saturday against UT Rio Grande Valley.

Next, they were blown away by the Sooners, a Big 12 program that competes for an NCAA tournament berth on an annual basis.

Nevertheless, it was loss that represented the widest margin of defeat in Steve Henson’s five years as coach. Henson told reporters after the OU game that “we’ve got to figure some things out.”

“If these two games didn’t get our attention, nothing thing will,” the coach said.

With no time to prepare for Sul Ross, what’s the point of emphasis?

“Compete. Fight. Battle,” the coach said. “Rebound. Play tough. Play unselfish. We don’t need a scouting report for that. We don’t need a shootaround for that. We need to dig down and find a way to become a tougher team.”

UTSA hopes to end skid against major conference foes

Keaton Wallace. Oklahoma beat UTSA 87-67 on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA’s Keaton Wallace looks to pass in a game against Oklahoma, played two years ago at the Convocation Center. — Photo by Joe Alexander

In a little more than four seasons under Coach Steve Henson, the UTSA Roadrunners have created their share of magical moments with victories over some of the best teams in Conference USA.

The Roadrunners have won games against the likes of Marshall, Western Kentucky and Old Dominion. In the past three seasons, they’re a combined 29-25 in the C-USA regular season.

But in games played in November and December, it’s been tough sledding for UTSA against teams that it would like to beat to boost its national profile.

In games played against teams from the major, revenue-producing conferences, the Roadrunners are 0-9 under Henson leading into tonight’s road test at Oklahoma of the Big 12.

“We’re always going to try and schedule a few of those games,” Henson said. “It’s fun for our kids. … Going to Oklahoma, you know what to expect from a style-of-play standpoint. And vice versa, they know we’re not going to come in there and hold the ball on ’em and try to work the clock, things like that. You want to set up some good matchups in the non-conference.”

UTSA plays most of these games on the road for the financial reward. But, in most cases, UTSA’s opponent has been pushed to the brink before it finishes off the victory.

“It’s always a good measuring stick for us and also prepares us. We want to learn from these opportunities. We’ve played well in stretches against a lot of these opponents. (Against) Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arkansas — there were some stretches fairly deep in the ball game in second half when we were right there in it.

“We just haven’t found a way to finish it off and get a win yet.”

Here’s a list of UTSA’s games against the ‘majors’ under Steve Henson:

Scores

Nov. 13, 2016 — At Oregon State. L, 64-72.
Dec. 7, 2016 — At Texas Tech. L, 50-87.
Dec. 4, 2017 — At Oklahoma. L, 85-97.
Dec. 20, 2017 — At Nebraska. L, 94-104.
Nov. 12, 2018 — Oklahoma. L, 67-87.
Nov. 14, 2018 — At Oklahoma State. L, 60-82.
Dec. 15, 2018 — Arkansas (at North Little Rock). L, 67-79.
Nov. 5, 2019 — At Oklahoma. L, 67-85.
Dec. 18, 2019 — Oregon State. L, 78-88.

Close calls

In 2016, lost by eight at Oregon State — The Roadrunners surprised the Beavers by rolling to a lead of 10 late in the first half. After intermission, the Beavers surged to regain control of the game, but the Roadrunners hung around to within two possessions for most of the second half. With 3:30 remaining, Giovanni De Nicolao hit a three to bring UTSA to within one point. But Oregon State held UTSA without a field goal on a 9-2 run the rest of the way.

In 2017, lost by 12 at Oklahoma — The Roadrunners unleashed freshman guard Jhivvan Jackson, who opened eyes by outscoring heralded Sooners freshman Trae Young, 31-28. UTSA was within five at halftime and within two with 16 minutes left, but OU blew it open with a 25-11 run over a five-minute stretch to take charge.

Also in 2017, lost by 10 at Nebraska — UTSA hit 15 three-point shots in the game and scored 52 points in the second half. The game was tied with 4:23 left when Jackson hit a three. But Nebraska constructed a 9-0 run to put down the upset bid.

In 2018, lost by 12 to Arkansas — The Roadrunners stayed close for three quarters of the game at North Little Rock against the cold-shooting Razorbacks. Midway through the second half the Roadrunners went on an 11-2 run and assumed a four-point lead with 9:07 left. But the Razorbacks closed strong behind Jalen Harris and Daniel Gafford.

In 2019, lost by 10 to Oregon State — In a game played at Houston in the Toyota Center, the Beavers were blowing out the Roadrunners, pushing the lead to 16 points early in the second half. But UTSA retaliated behind Jackson to outscore OSU 26-16, dropping the lead down to six. It was still a six-point game with 6:45 left before the Beavers held off the Roadrunners to the final buzzer.

Through the years

UTSA’s last victory over a team from one of the five major revenue producing conferences came on Nov. 15, 2009, when the Roadrunners registered a 62-50 upset on the road against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Since then, UTSA has lost 21 straight against teams from a group including the Big 12, the Pac 12, the SEC, the ACC and the Big Ten. The drought covers 22 games if you count a 2015 loss to Creighton, from the Big East. The Big East is the NCAA’s pre-eminent, basketball-led powerhouse, albeit one that does not play major-conference football.

A crazy schedule? UTSA players ‘grateful’ for chance to play

Looking to bounce back from a dispiriting road loss, the UTSA Roadrunners on Tuesday announced a not-so-minor adjustment to their schedule, unveiling a plan to play on the road Thursday night at the University of Oklahoma.

Eric Parrish. UTSA beat UT-Permian Basin 97-71 on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020 in the men's basketball season opener at the Convocation Center.

Forward Eric Parrish drives to the bucket in last Friday’s season opener against UT Permian Basin. — Photo by Joe Alexander

The wrinkle sets up back-to-back games for the Roadrunners for the second time in two weeks, as they return home Friday night to meet the Division III Sul Ross State Lobos.

In most years, back-to-back games are rare unless they are played at neutral sites with multiple teams involved. But this isn’t any ordinary year. UTSA junior Eric Parrish said it’s all part of trying to get a season going during the coronavirus pandemic.

“With them extending the season to us, we’re grateful,” Parrish said. “We’re grateful for each game that we’re able to go lace ’em up.”

Last week, UTSA was scheduled to open its season at OU. But the game was called off because of Covid-19 issues in the Sooners’ program, forcing the Roadrunners to scramble travel plans and take a bus ride back to San Antonio on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving.

It all set up a two-game, season-opening test last Friday and Saturday.

On Friday afternoon, the Roadrunners played well and blew out the Division II UT Permian Basin Panthers, 97-71. That night, they took a five-hour bus ride to Edinburg, where they would spend the night in preparation for a Saturday afternoon game at UT Rio Grande Valley.

The Division I Vaqueros were ready and waiting for them. Forcing UTSA into a slow pace, UTRGV pounded out an 81-64 victory, leaving the Roadrunners in a bit of a funk for a good 48 hours. UTSA coach Steve Henson said players responded with enthusiasm Monday afternoon when it looked like they would get to play the OU game this week.

“It was kind of a cool deal yesterday,” Henson said. “We had a long meeting to recap the disappointments from Saturday. We had a good team meeting and had ’em speak in that meeting. When the meeting was over, I asked ’em if they had anything going on Thursday night.

“They kind of looked at me funny. I said, ‘Let’s go play Oklahoma then.’ They were pretty fired up. I think the opportunity to play an exciting game and get that taste out of our mouth, was a pretty exciting situation for our guys.”

Notable

Henson said he expects Jhivvan Jackson will be back in the starting lineup Thursday night at Oklahoma. Jackson came off the bench in his first game of the season Saturday at UT Rio Grande Valley.

Armed with an improved Jacob Germany, UTSA to open at OU

Jacob Germany. UAB beat UTSA in CUSA on Thursday. - photo by Joe Alexander

Expectations are high for sophomore center Jacob Germany as UTSA opens the season Wednesday night at the University of Oklahoma. — Photo by Joe Alexander.

Who says a kid from a small town in Oklahoma can’t learn how to become a man of the world?

Jacob Germany is doing just that after spending only one year in the UTSA basketball program.

Jacob Germany. Prarie View A&M beat UTSA 79-72 on Saturday night at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA fans remember Jacob Germany’s attacks at the rim last season. He averaged 5.5 points as a freshman – Photo by Joe Alexander

“One of my roommates (Erik Czumbel) is actually from Italy,” Germany told a television reporter over the summer. “He’s teaching me Italian on the low. That’s fun.

“It’s crazy to see the different cultures on the team and see how basketball can bring other cultures together.”

Not only is Germany growing as a person, he’s made significant strides on the hardwood, as well.
The 6-foot-11 sophomore from Kingston, Okla., is emerging as the type of impact player in college that was expected of him after leading his high school to the Class 3A state title in 2018-19.

“Jacob’s doing great,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “He gained some weight. Gained some muscle. You know, he’s so talented. It’s amazing the things he can do that look so easy.

Ja - photo by Joe Alexander

Germany entered high school at 6-foot-5 but kept on growing into a lanky, 6-11 frame. After a year at UTSA, he’s gained almost 20 pounds, up to 234. — Photo by Joe Alexander

“We’re just trying to get him to go harder, play with energy, fly around. He’s literally the fastest guy on the team, on turf, in 20-yard sprints. He’s an amazing athlete.

“We’re just trying to get him to play hard every single possession.”

The Roadrunners open the season Wednesday night in Germany’s home state, at the University of Oklahoma.

Fans at OU will see a different athlete than the one that led Kingston to a 28-2 record a few years ago.

He’s packed on about 20 pounds, which, along with the 31 games he played last year, has added an entirely different dimension to his game.

Adding more to his game

“With Jacob, the big thing for him is experience,” UTSA assistant Scott Thompson said. “You know, playing at our level last year was so important for him.”

Reports out of the weight room suggest that he has also emerged as one of the strongest players on the team.

“He’s a guy that’s benefited so much from coach (Christian) Wood’s strength program,” Thompson said. “His body continues to change. He’s been up to 234, I think, at one point. For his length and height, to be able to run and move like he does, you know, is unbelievable.

“This offseason, he spent a lot of time working on his ball skills. I think you’re going to see him score a lot more in the paint. Facing up at 10 and 12 feet, he’s shooting his jumper so much more consistently.”

Germany averaged 5.5 points and 4.5 rebounds last season, but he showed last week that he is capable of more, contributing 24 points in an intra-squad scrimmage at UTSA.

“The game is so easy for him,” UTSA forward Adrian Rodriguez said. “He’s so big, so athletic, all you have to do is throw it up (for him). When he jumps, there’s not much else anybody can do.”

Becoming a prep star

Kingston coach Taylor Wiebener said it was “a lot of fun” to coach Germany in high school.

“To be able to put a 6-10 or 6-11 guy on the floor, you know, there’s not a lot of high schools around here able to do that,” he said Monday in a telephone interview. “Throw on top of that, (that) Jacob is very skilled for a big man (and) he moves around so well. So, that was kind of icing on the cake.

“We felt good having him on the floor, just protecting the rim, and (scoring), as well. I mean, Jacob was fun to coach.

“Early in his career, I made it basically my mission to try to make him tougher, because he had the tools … But,the one thing he was going to have to have, was some toughness.”

Basically, Wiebener tried to get maximum effort out of his lanky center.

‘In the gym constantly’

“That was kind of our goal,” Wiebener said. “He took care of a lot of the fundamental skills on his own. He was a gym rat. I mean, he was in the gym constantly, working on things. So that part, we didn’t have to worry about.”

Initially, Wiebener didn’t know what he had in Germany, who was about 6-foot-5 as a high school freshman.

“Honestly, he was a little awkward,” Wiebener said. “Like, eighth and ninth grade, he was tall (and) real skinny. Kind of awkward. So I said, ‘He’s fixing to stop growing pretty quick.’ But, every summer … I wouldn’t see him, (and when) he’d come back, it seemed like he’d grown another 2-3 inches.

“By the time he graduated, he was a legit 6-10 or 6-11.”

Coaching Germany at the high school level was an adventure in terms of trying to get him to add weight, Wiebener said.

“I remember his sophomore or junior year, we had been on him about it,” the coach said. “I told him, ‘Your dad is a chef. You’re the only kid I know that, your dad’s a chef, and you’re as skinny as you are.’ Once he hit that 200-pound mark, that was kind of a milestone for us.”

Winning a state title

As a junior, Germany used the added strength in leading Kingston to the state finals.

He also saw his name rise on the prospect lists. As a senior, Germany paced his team all the way to the title, producing 21 points and 12 rebounds in the 3A championship game.

Another challenge for him as he entered college last year came in adjusting to the speed of the game.

Because the Roadrunners play at a tempo that is rated as one of the fastest in NCAA Division I, Henson’s players need to have the ability to run well and run hard for sustained periods of time.

By the end of last season, Germany was picking it up on that front. He had gained a better feel for everything, really, and as a result, he was able to move into UTSA’s starting lineup.

Now, he wants to take another step as he starts his sophomore year.

“All around, really, I’ve been putting on some weight,” he said Monday on a Zoom conference call. “I’ve been working on my motor. Going (hard) all the time. Not taking plays off. Just being that energetic guy that the coaches want me to be.

“That’s really where I’ve stepped up.”

Growing as a person

Asked how his Italian language skills are coming along, he shrugged and said he’s made “very little” progress along those lines.

“It’s probably words I can’t say on camera,” Germany said, smiling.

During the offseason, Germany said he worked out at a gym at his church back home in Kingston, a town of about 1,700 people nestled near Lake Texoma, just to the north of the Red River in southern Oklahoma.

He worked on some moves on the court, but, mainly, he said he worked on his mental game.

“It was hard being a freshman and everyone expected me to do all this stuff,” he said. “Especially being from a small town, coming to this big, big city … Especially coming from a small school where there’s not so much competition.

“There was a lot of pressure on me last year. If I did anything bad, I would get really mad. I wouldn’t necessarily show it. But, like, I had real bad anger issues. Over quarantine I was able to grow mentally and mature a little bit.”

Earning a starting job

Germany, who started 10 games at the end of last season, is expected to start in the post for the Roadrunners against the Sooners.

Alongside Germany, the others in the first five are expected to include Cedrick Alley Jr. at a forward position, plus Jhivvan Jackson, Keaton Wallace and Eric Parrish at guards.

Jackson and Wallace formed the highest-scoring backcourt duo in the nation last year. Parrish and Alley are transfers playing in their first games for UTSA.

Henson said Germany has been “really, really good” in preseason workouts.

“Our expectations of him are so high, higher than he has of himself, even,” Henson said. “Every now and then, we’ll think, ‘He didn’t have the greatest practice.’ And then we’ll look and (we ask), ‘What did he look like a year ago? (The difference) is phenomenal, (in) the improvement he’s made.

“So, the sky’s the limit for him. He’s just barely scratching his potential.”

UTSA forward Adrian Rodriguez is set for an expanded role

Adrian Rodriguez. Oklahoma beat UTSA 87-67 on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Forward Adrian Rodriguez (No. 15) says he feels like the UTSA Roadrunners ‘are taking the right steps’ in preseason practices to become a winning team. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Several months ago, UTSA forward Adrian Rodriguez approached Steve Henson with a proposition. He told the Roadrunners’ fifth-year head coach that he wanted to lose some weight in attempt to maximize his physical conditioning for the upcoming college basketball season.

Rodriguez emphasized that if he ever failed to live up to his daily resolve, he wanted Henson to step in, to remind him of the promise he made. The pact seems to be paying dividends. With the season-opener scheduled for Wednesday night at Oklahoma, UTSA has a much-improved, front-court player on its hands.

Trimmed down to 240 pounds on a 6-foot-7 frame, he is feeling good, and moving well.

“Adrian Rodriguez has shown real, real positive signs in the … last five, six weeks,” Henson said. “He’s in probably the best shape of his life. Or, since he’s been here, post injury. He’s been really, really good, noticeably different with his conditioning, with his mindset.

“So we anticipate him playing quite a bit … We’ve been really, really pleased with him.”

Steve Henson. UTSA beat UTEP 86-70 on Saturday at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA coach Steve Henson says Adrian Rodriguez’s commitment to offseason conditioning has paid dividends. – Photo by Joe Alexander

In a telephone interview on Thursday morning, the UTSA redshirt junior from Tulsa (Okla.) Union High School talked about his humble roots as a player, about his high hopes for the team and about the genesis of his heart-to-heart talk with Henson.

“At some point at the beginning of summer,” Rodriguez said, “after (the start of) the quarantine, I just felt like I had to do something different. You know? Like, the first three years, (with) the injuries and things like that, it didn’t really go my way. I just felt like I had to do something different.

“So, I made it a point to lose weight and improve on the physical aspect. And so, I went in and talked to (the coach) to make sure he held me accountable, that I didn’t fall off.”

In some ways, UTSA fans haven’t seen the real Rodriguez yet even though he has been on the team for three years.

Rodriguez, a former all-state player in high school, hasn’t made many headlines at UTSA to this point. He has yet to show up on many highlight reels. To this point, he’s known mostly for his hard luck.

In 2017, Rodriguez blew out his knee in his first college game and was lost for the season. In the past two years, he has enjoyed his moments as an aggressive defensive player in the post. But he has come off the bench primarily, averaging 8.7 minutes and 11.4 minutes, respectively.

As dawn breaks on a new season, however, his frustrating nights on the bench could be coming to an end. Assistant coach Scott Thompson echoed Henson, predicting “a big role” for the player if he continues to work for it.

“The reason we went after Adrian so hard after we got the job (here) was because of his (high) IQ and feel for the game,” Thompson said. “He’s an incredible teammate. He’s a winner. You know, that knee injury for him was devastating for his career.

Getting in ‘peak condition’

“He’s just had to work really hard to get his conditioning back, and that’s always been the big thing with him. Being under-sized, as a front line guy, you just have to be in peak condition, and he’s worked hard to get back into shape.”

In the past few years, Rodriguez’s emotional fire has been evident. At practices, he will get so wrapped up in five-on-five drills that he sometimes shouts and slams his hands on the floor after a defensive stop.

In practices and in games, Rodriguez is always talking, trying to communicate to help his teammates. He’s sort of like former University of Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler, Thompson said. When OU reached the NCAA Final Four in 2015-16, Lon Kruger was the head coach and Buddy Hield was the scoring machine.

Henson and Thompson were on the Sooners’ staff, just before they both came to UTSA.

Adrian Rodriguez. Oklahoma beat UTSA 87-67 on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Rodriguez averaged 11.4 minutes in 23 games last year. A screener on offense and a defensive specialist, he produced 1.7 points and 3.3 rebounds.

“The guy on that that team that didn’t get the credit he deserved was Ryan Spangler,” Thompson said. “He was our four-five man who kind of anchored our defense. Adrian kind of has that same feel. He’s able to call out actions … you know, to communicate to guys on how to guard ball screens.

“He’s advanced in his basketball IQ … He doesn’t need a ton of reps (with starters), and he picks up things very quickly.”

Born in El Paso to parents who grew up in Mexico, Rodriguez lived in Texas for awhile, moved to Colorado and then moved on to Tulsa when he was in fourth grade. He said he didn’t really follow basketball, let alone play it, until his eighth-grade year.

“And that was only because my brother played on varsity,” he said. “That year, I was horrible.”

Given his limitations, Rodriguez did start to show some resolve in learning the game. He started to pick the brain of his father, Abel Rodriguez, who once played collegiately in Mexico and for Mexico’s 19-and-under program.

Family roots in Mexico

“My dad used to play, back in his day, and he was always into the little things (in the game),” Adrian Rodriguez said. “Like, setting good screens. Setting screens, rolling and talking. He wasn’t the most skilled guy. But he was always on the floor because he would do everything right. With effort plays, things like that.

“So from the very beginning, everything I learned was (how) to do the little things.”

Pretty soon, the little things turned into big things.

Under coach Rudy Garcia, Rodriguez played on a high school team at Tulsa Union that won state when he was a freshman and then added regional titles every other year. As a senior, he was all-state while averaging 14.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.6 blocks.

Now at UTSA, he’s getting ready to embark on his fourth season with the Roadrunners, all while making strides toward a degree in mechanical engineering. He’s got a 3.0 grade-point average and seems to be well on his way.

Sometimes, he wonders how it all happened.

‘How did I get here?’

“I have a little saying, like, ‘How did I get here?’ ” he said. “It’s all crazy. Until my junior year (in high school) I didn’t even think I was going to be able to play (in college). From that mindset to where I am now, it’s crazy.”

In his injury-scarred first season at UTSA, the Roadrunners won 20 games. In his second year, they won 17. Both seasons, UTSA finished 11-7 in Conference USA, competing with and beating some of the best teams in the league. Last year, the Roadrunners suffered a fall, with the team finishing 13-19 overall and 7-11.

Despite the pandemic, preseason workouts in the past few months have been productive, Rodriguez said, and an attitude adjustment may hold the key to it all.

“I think we look really good right now,” he said. “The chemistry is there. It seems like everybody is setting their egos aside and really playing for one thing, and that’s to win. Last year we had a chance to be really good and it didn’t go our way. I think this year, we’re taking the right steps to get where we need to be.”

In terms of his own situation, Rodriguez said it’s encouraging to hear that the head coach has noticed how hard he has worked personally to make it happen.

“It re-assures me that what I’ve done is the right thing,” he said. “I believe everything (in offseason conditioning) that I’ve been doing is not to benefit me — but to help the team. So if he sees that improvement, then, to me, it means we’re (on track) to win. And so, that’s the best part, for me.”

Efforts to improve defensively dominated UTSA’s offseason

Steve Henson. UTSA lost to Middle Tennessee on Saturday at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Steve Henson says he likes the way his players have embraced a commitment to improved play on the defensive end. – Photo by Joe Alexander

A year ago, optimism soared among followers of the UTSA basketball program. Coming off two straight winning seasons, and with a high-scoring backcourt duo returning, the Roadrunners were picked to finish second in Conference USA.

For a variety of reasons, the season didn’t work out the way the pundits thought it might, and it didn’t come close to what Coach Steve Henson wanted.

UTSA finished 13-19 overall and 7-11 in the C-USA. The Roadrunners, seeded 10th in the conference’s postseason tournament, lost on opening night in Frisco to the UAB Blazers.

On Tuesday morning, eight days before the season opener at Oklahoma, Henson reflected in a telephone interview on what went wrong last winter and what the program has done to address the shortcomings going into his fifth season on campus.

“Certainly the initial response, and the most glaring area, was the defensive end,” he said. “We talked about that in the post-game on many nights (last year).

“We just didn’t get where we needed to on the defensive end. We didn’t defend at a level high enough to win enough ball games. So, that was the talk — that was all the talk in the offseason.

“It was, ‘How do we change that? How do we change our approach?’ Certainly it starts with me and having more focus and more emphasis, more time (devoted to it) in our early workouts, and we’ve done that,” Henson said.

Led again on the offensive end by Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, the Roadrunners will employ some new personnel to the rotation in hopes of improving on a defense that ranked in the lower half of C-USA in field goal and three-point percentage allowed.

“I think we’ve got a group that’ll be more committed on that end,” Henson said “They want to make improvements on that end of the floor, and they understand that we can’t reach our goals unless we defend at a high level.”

The Roadrunners are looking to a pair of transfers, Cedrick Alley, Jr. and Eric Parrish, to help make up for the loss of Byron Frohnen and Atem Bior. Both will play roles in the positions of small and power forward, Henson said.

In the C-USA’s latest preseason poll, the Roadrunners are pegged for ninth place. Quite a snub for a program that won 20 games in 2016-17 and 17 in 2017-18. Both years, the Roadrunners finished 11-7 in conference.

So far this fall, Henson said he likes what he has seen from his players, in terms of embracing the defensive mindset.

“Oh, very much so,” he said. “We’ve added some new faces and we think that will help. More importantly, it’s our … commitment and our focus.

“Again, that starts with me and our coaches, just making sure that that’s the priority. We’ve got talented guys offensively, and we assume we’ll be able to put the ball in the hole.

“Now, we weren’t great offensively. I don’t think we were anywhere near we needed to be offensively, either. But all the talk has been defense — (how to avoid) the breakdowns, how to simplify things schematically on the defensive end, mindset, effort.

“All those things go into it.”

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