UTSA takes high expectations into the postseason

UTSA coach Steve Henson waves to the fans while walking off the court Thursday following the Roadrunners' final home game of the season. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA coach Steve Henson has willed his team to an 8-2 record down the stretch in Conference USA and 9-2 overall leading into the C-USA championships. — Photo by Joe Alexander

High-scoring offense. Capable defense. Positive mindset. The UTSA Roadrunners seem to have everything in order in terms of elements necessary to make a run in the postseason.

They’ll put it all to the test at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday when they meet the Charlotte 49ers in Frisco in the first round of the Conference USA championships.

Cedrick Alley Jr. UTSA beat UAB 96-79 in Conference USA on the Roadrunners' senior day for Jhivvan Jackson, Keaton Wallace and Phoenix Ford on Feb. 27, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA newcomer Cedrick Alley Jr. has emerged as a defensive stopper and a capable perimeter shooter during UTSA’s 9-2 streak. — Photo by Joe Alexander

One of the best things going for the Roadrunners right now is momentum — they’ve won 9 of their last 11.

Charlotte, meanwhile, has lost eight straight.

“Everybody’s going to head to Frisco with a different speech for their guys,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said on a zoom conference Monday morning. “But, yeah, in a perfect world you need to be healthy. You need to be fresh. Guys still need to enjoy being around each other. We’ve felt that with our guys.

“For the last two weeks, with the exception of Adrian (Rodriguez) we’ve been pretty healthy. I mean, very healthy.

“There’s some guys constantly getting treatment, trying to stretch out, but we’re in pretty good shape physically,” Henson said. “We’re playing better basketball. We’ve won 9 out of 11. Confidence is high. Spirits are high. Our expectations are high. That’s really what you want when you head into conference tournament play.”

UTSA enters the tournament as the No. 4 seed in the C-USA West. Charlotte is No. 5 in the C-USA East. Henson said he knows what 49ers coaches are telling their players.

“Charlotte is a much better team than what they’ve shown in the the last six ball games,” he said. “So they’re talking to their guys about a fresh start. They played well against Marshall (in the) second game (last weekend). They’re on a clean slate, ready to play better basketball. But I like where we’re at, and that’s what we’re concerned about right now.”

Jhivvan Jackson. 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

Jhivvan Jackson led the C-USA in scoring at 20.7 points per game en route to first-team, all-conference honors for the third straight season. — Photo by Joe Alexander

For the 49ers, the task will center on slowing a Roadrunners’ offensive attack that has averaged 82.5 points in its last 11 games. Led by guards Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, UTSA is shooting 47.9 percent in that stretch.

“It’s such a good feeling, knowing that everybody can step up at any moment,” Rodriguez said. “What I enjoy the most out of that, is that we all trust each other. You know, we trust each other to make that extra pass. To give the ball to the man that’s open. Whenever we need it. And everybody makes plays. The right plays. Especially recently. The most recent games.

“The ball movement is beautiful. With great shots. That shows that you can trust each other.”

Coming off a knee injury, Rodriguez played 16 minutes last week against Southwestern Adventist and is expected to be ready to play against the 49ers.

Records

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

Looking ahead

If the Roadrunners win Wednesday, they would advance to Thursday’s quarterfinals against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. Western Kentucky, featuring 6-foot-11 center and former San Antonio schoolboy Charles Bassey, is the No. 1 seed in the C-USA East.

Two victories would send the Roadrunners into Friday’s semifinals against either the UAB Blazers, the Marshall Thundering Herd or the Rice Owls. Rice won Tuesday on opening night, eliminating Southern Miss, 61-52.

UTSA senior Keaton Wallace goes to the bench in the second half Thursday in the Roadrunners' final home game of the season. - photo by Joe Alexander

Senior Keaton Wallace goes to the bench in the second half last Thursday in the Roadrunners’ final home game. Wallace enters the postseason averaging 16.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists. – Photo by Joe Alexander

The Thundering Herd and the Owls will play Wednesday at 6 p.m., with the winner moving on to the quarterfinals to meet the Blazers, the No. 2 seed in the C-USA West Division.

The semifinals are set for Friday and the finals on Saturday.

Western Kentucky, UAB (No. 2, West), Louisiana Tech (No. 1, West) and Old Dominion (No. 2, East) all have byes into Thursday’s quarterfinals, meaning that each would need to win three games in three days to win the tournament. Teams playing on Wednesday, like UTSA, would need to win four games in four days.

In the C-USA, the seventh-seeded Houston Cougars in 2010 were the last team to win four times in four days to earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Since then, three teams seeded outside the top four (Middle Tennessee in 2015, Old Dominion in 2016 and Marshall in 2017) have won three games to play in the C-USA finals. Each one of them ran out of steam and lost in the championship game to a team that only had to win twice to get there.

Quotable

In a zoom interview Monday, Wallace said he thinks the Roadrunners have enough depth on the roster to win four games this week. “Most definitely,” he said. “We have confidence in all our teammates. Recently, we’ve been probably like eight-nine (players) deep in our rotation. Everybody plays their part. Everybody chips in. We’ve had a lot of success the last few games, so we expect to keep that going.”

Notable

NCAA tournament selections will be announced on Sunday. At the moment, two prominent media projections have installed Western Kentucky as the only C-USA team to make the NCAAs. Jerry Palm of cbssports.com projects the Hilltoppers as a No. 12 seed. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has penciled them in as a No. 13 seed.

Kemba Walker’s 10-year-old miracle still resonates

Ten years have passed since guard Kemba Walker led the UConn Huskies on a wild ride to the Big East Conference title and, ultimately, to the NCAA title.

It was perhaps the only time in recent memory that a school’s performance in a major conference tournament ever equaled that of an ensuing ride at the national level in terms of how fans would come to view the accomplishment years after the fact.

What the Huskies did at Madison Square Garden in 2011 still seems unthinkable. They won five game in five days to win the Big East crown.

All that comes to mind for me today with the Conference USA championships opening in Frisco.

For Southern Miss and Rice, playing today in the preliminary round for the right to advance into the main bracket, Walker’s achievement stands as a testament that anything can happen in a tournament setting.

Even if you have to win as many as five games in five days to reach the NCAA’s Big Dance.

For seven other C-USA teams who start play on Wednesday, they’ll need to win four in four days. That eight-team group includes the UTSA Roadrunners, who open the tournament Wednesday afternoon against Charlotte.

Finally, for the select four with byes into Thursday’s quarterfinals, the dream can be secured with three wins in three days.

From a historical perspective, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, UAB Blazers, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs and Old Dominion Monarchs would seem to hold a massive advantage over the others.

In 24 previous C-USA tournaments — last year’s wasn’t completed because of the pandemic — the conference has never crowned a champion that won five games in five days, and only two previous tournaments in years past have been structured in such a way, with five rounds. In all the others, only four champions have been crowned after winning four games in four days.

According to the brackets, only the 1997 Marquette Golden Eagles, the 1999 Charlotte 49ers, the 2000 Saint Louis Billikens and the 2010 Houston Cougars have danced through the C-USA tournament with an improbable 4-0 record during a 96-hour period. To me, it was surprising to find that while going through the records.

Going into my research, I really didn’t think I’d find more than one or two.

As a long-time hoops fan who probably has spent far too much time in my life following March Madness, I could only think of one other situation when a team pulled off such a head-slapping achievement.

Going in, I remembered that the 2006 Syracuse Orange did the four-in-four thing at another memorable Big East tournament.

But I had forgotten the account of the team’s championship celebration, when one reporter pointed out that Syracuse star Gerry McNamara had made a bigger splash in the New York tabloids that week than even Paris Hilton.

I asked UTSA coach Steve Henson on a recent zoom conference if he had a favorite memory of a team that had won four games in a conference tournament, and he didn’t know of one right off the top of his head.

“When we were coaching at UNLV, I think we probably just won three in a row in two different years,” he said. “I don’t think it was a four-game situation. Those memories are pretty special. There was a stretch in the Mountain West where New Mexico was always good. San Diego State was always good. Two years in particular, us and BYU were the two best teams.

“BYU won the regular season two years in a row. Then we knocked them off in the conference tournament two years in a row. That was pretty special. Unbelievable atmosphere.

“In the Mountain West, there could not have two semifinal games … with a better atmosphere that we had in those games at the Thomas and Mack Center (in Las Vegas). San Diego State traveled well. BYU traveled well. New Mexico traveled well. Atmosphere was unbelievable … For us to beat the regular-season champions two years in a row, was pretty special.

“To win four in a row is a little bit tougher, but that’s our task.”

Hey. it is a tall task. But it’s not as rare as you might think. As a matter of fact, the Appalachian State Mountaineers on Monday night completed a four-wins-in- four-days romp through the Sun Belt Conference tournament.

Michigan did it in 2017 in the Big Ten tournament in Washington D.C. after its charter air craft, en route to the event, slid off the runway and crashed. At the time, Wolverines coach John Beilein said his players were “a little banged up and shook up” after the experience, but then they went on to beat Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin on consecutive days.

Austin Peay did it in 2016 in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Houston, with Tom Penders in his final year as a Division I head coach, was the last team in Conference USA to pull it off. In 2010, with a team led by Aubrey Coleman, Kelvin Lewis, Maurice McNeil and San Antonio’s Adam Brown, Houston claimed the C-USA crown as the No. 7 seed. The Cougars knocked off East Carolina, Memphis, Southern Miss and, finally, top-seeded UTEP in one remarkable week in Tulsa.

UTSA, in turn, has won three in three days but never four. The Roadrunners did the three-in-three thing in 1988 in Daytona Beach, Fla., when they claimed their first NCAA berth out of the old Trans America Athletic Conference. They won two games in 1999, three in 2004 and three in 2011 in their other three conference title conquests. But, never in a three-day period as they did under the late Ken Burmeister in ’88.

So, boiling it all down, the Roadrunners will face an uphill challenge this week rivaling a drive up the winding roads on Pike’s Peak.

At the same time, they do have a couple of dangerous offensive threats in Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace. They do have some confidence instilled by a 9-2 record over their last 11 games. And they did win some of those games with defense that seems much-more suited to conference tournament-style play than what fans may have seen last November and December.

All that’s missing, if you look at it from a historical perspective, is magic.

It’s the magic that some fans in New York are still talking about 10 years after Walker scored 130 points (combined) on five opponents, turning his five-day stay in the city into the stuff of basketball legend.

Determined to keep winning, UTSA prepares for UAB

Steve Henson. UTSA beat Florida Atlantic 86-75 at the Convocation Center on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, in the second game of a Conference USA men's college basketball back-to-back. - photo by Joe Alexander

Steve Henson’s UTSA Roadrunners have won four straight and seven of their last eight going into a weekend home series against the UAB Blazers. — Photo by Joe Alexander

Coach Steve Henson said Wednesday afternoon in a zoom call with reporters that the UTSA Roadrunners’ two Conference USA home games against the UAB Blazers this weekend likely would be the team’s last games in the regular season.

They’re set for Friday night and Saturday afternoon at the Convocation Center.

In addition, Henson said he expects the games also will be the last two at home in the remarkable careers of Roadrunners seniors Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, the leading scorers in the program’s 40-year history.

Both Jackson and Wallace told reporters they have not made a decision on whether they might take advantage of an extra year of eligibility. Before the season, all Division I basketball players were given an extra year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Even so, Henson said he plans on having “Senior Day” festivities on Saturday for Jackson, Wallace and also for forward Phoenix Ford. The coach was asked how “Senior Day” might be different with the lingering possibility that one or both of his high-scoring guards could return.

“I think we’ll go through it as if it’s their last game and worry about it after that,” Henson said. “The guys, right now, they’re focused on continuing to play (into the tournament). We started talking about this weeks ago — the opportunity to start winning games, to play better basketball.

“At one point, we knew four of our final six were going to be at home. That we could go into the conference tournament with some momentum. So, they liked that.

“What we did yesterday in practice was really, really encouraging. Just from different guys making plays. The ball moving. I think our guys are pretty locked in right now. There’s always that emotional piece on Senior Night, right before the game starts. (But) our guys are still planning on playing basketball for awhile.”

UTSA hasn’t played since Feb. 13. On that day, the Roadrunners completed a two-game, home sweep of the Florida Atlantic Owls, pushing their winning streak to four. A day later, a few players came in to shoot at the Convocation Center, but with cold and inclement weather on the way, the campus was scheduled to close at 5 p.m.

As it turned out, a week of the worst winter weather in South Texas in years descended from cold, gray skies, leading to power outages all over the city.
The UTSA basketball team was not spared.

Some players — notably, roommates Wallace and Jackson — had power go out in their apartments. From a basketball standpoint, the inclement weather kept the Roadrunners off the practice floor through Thursday. Ultimately, the team’s two road games, set for Friday and Saturday at Charlotte, N.C., were scrapped.

It was a blow to the fast-improving Roadrunners, who have won seven of their last eight conference games.

“We wanted to go down there and play,” Henson said. “We just couldn’t make it happen.”

Coming up

UAB at UTSA, Friday, 6 p.m.
UAB at UTSA, Saturday, 3 p.m.
Conference USA tournament, at Frisco, March 10-13

Records

UAB 18-5, 10-4
UTSA 12-9, 8-6

Notes

Before the season, C-USA officials left open the first week of March — next week — for any make-up games. Even so, the two games between UTSA and Charlotte likely will not be played, Henson said, because Charlotte’s end-of-week schedule is full. The 49ers are scheduled to play Covid-related makeups on the road at Marshall on March 5 and 6.

“The chances of us playing Charlotte are slim and none,” said Henson, who added that the likely cancellations have created a “pretty weird situation for us” leading into the C-USA tournament.

“We’ll go 24 days with only two games — these UAB games — in that window there, which is less than ideal,” Henson said. “So we’re still trying to find something for next week. (We’ll) see if we can schedule a game or two. I’d really not prefer to go such a long span with only two games in there. But at this point, as of right now, the UAB games will be our last regular-season games.”

Senior Day emotions

Jackson has scored 2,461 points and Wallace 1,964. Jackson has twice been first-team all-C-USA. Wallace, in turn, has been second-team all-C-USA twice. The Roadrunners have built their program around them, which means that Saturday likely will be an emotional day.

“I’ll probably be as emotional as anybody, with the exception of some of the family members,” Henson said. “Keaton’ll probably be pretty stone-faced. That’s kind of his M.O., anyway. Jhivvan will be emotional, I think.

“Once the ball gets tipped, I think they’ll play great. It’s unfortunate that we can’t have an arena full of fans come and honor them in that regard. We’re going to honor Phoenix, as well. Those guys have done a great job. Great ambassadors for our program.”

With Covid restrictions, attendance will be limited.

“Keaton and Jhivvan helped us turn this thing around,” the coach said. “Got the attention of everyone around the country, everyone around the league. Really proud of them. It’s amazing the accomplishments they’ve had. Wish we could celebrate it in more grand style. But we’ll do the best we can with Covid.”

Henson is approaching the games against the Blazers as if they’re as if they’re the last ones at home for his two stars.

“My anticipation is that they have accomplished so much, I anticipate they’re ready to move on,” the coach said. “They love it here, and we’re glad they do, and we love having them here, but they both have sights set on winning a bunch more games here and then going and playing professionally. We haven’t spent a lot of time on the details with the scholarship numbers, or anything like that.”

Roadrunners hang on to beat FAU for third straight win

Jhivvan Jackson. UTSA beat Florida Atlantic 84-80 on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, in the first game of a Conference USA back-to-back. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jhivvan Jackson played the pick and roll to near perfection as he scored 30 points against Florida Atlantic University. With the performance, Jackson moved up to 93rd on the NCAA Division I career scoring list with 2,441 points, one ahead of former St. John’s great Chris Mullin. — Photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA coach Steve Henson likes to think some games come down to winning the “toughness battles.”

The Roadrunners won enough of them down the stretch Friday night and held on to defeat the Florida Atlantic University Owls, 84-80, for their third straight victory.

“Early in the second half, they came right at us,” Henson said. “Just drove it at us. (Grabbed) offensive rebounds. They won all the toughness battles there for several minutes. Drew a bunch of fouls on us. Looked up and we got five team fouls early in the second half. So we really challenged our guys in the one timeout to just play tougher.”

Jacob Germany. UTSA beat Florida Atlantic 84-80 on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, in the first game of a Conference USA back-to-back. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jacob Germany battled with 6-foot-11 FAU center Karlis Silins and came up big with a career-high 26 points and 12 rebounds. It was his fifth career double double. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Boosted by senior guard Jhivvan Jackson, who scored 30 points, and sophomore center Jacob Germany, who produced a career-high 26 points and 12 rebounds, UTSA stayed on a hot roll that they’ve kept alive for four straight weekends.

The Roadrunners built an early lead and survived 13 three-pointers by the Owls, moving to 6-1 in their last seven games.

Feeling confident, they’ll try to make it four straight wins and seven out of eight when they host the Owls in Saturday’s Game 2 of a Conference USA home series at the Convocation Center.

At the moment, it’s only Feb. 12, but with different players and combinations contributing each night, it feels like March can’t come soon enough for the Roadrunners, who are averaging 87 points in their last three.

“Each game we get in the win column, that’s just more fuel to the fire,” said Germany, who hit 13 of 21 from the field. “We’re going to try to be one of those teams that gets hot at the right time and just makes a run deep in the conference tournament.”

Records

UTSA 11-9, 7-6
Florida Atlantic 8-8, 3-4

Coming up

Florida Atlantic at UTSA, Saturday at 3 p.m.

Top 100 breakthrough

Jackson was masterful with 11-for-21 shooting, not to mention six assists and six rebounds, on a night when perhaps the best player in program history moved into the top 100 in career scoring on the all-time NCAA Division I list.

By hitting for 30, the 6-foot native of Puerto Rico increased his school-leading career total to 2,441 points, which moved him into 93rd place all time in Division I, one point ahead of former St. John’s University star Chris Mullin.

Jackson’s mid-range game has been particularly good lately.

“Usually, a lot of teams limit my three-point shooting,” Jackson said. “And they always kind of have two guys on me. But I knew today, that team switches a lot. I knew I’d have to use the five (the center, for screens) a lot, and Jacob set some good screens for me.

“I had a couple of good looks. You know, I had a couple of good looks on the floaters and a couple of curls that I missed, but those shots, coach would love for me to take, you know, instead of a hard three. I don’t usually miss mid-range. Growing up, that’s the shot I worked on all the time.”

Down to the wire

As it turned out, the Roadrunners needed just about everything that Jackson and Germany could give them.

The Owls converted on a four-point play with eight seconds left when Kenan Blackshear knocked down a three out of the corner, got fouled, and hit a free throw to make it 82-80.

Keaton Wallace hit two free throws with six seconds left to ice it.

“Once again, we brought too much drama into it,” Henson said. “Think we had a nine-point lead real late and didn’t quite close it out the way you need to. That was a little disappointing. But there were a lot of positives.”

Halftime: UTSA 44, FAU 41

FAU hadn’t played a game in 20 days because of virus interruptions, and it showed early. The Owls were erratic on the offensive end, leading to some easy baskets for the Roadrunners, who jumped out to a 15-4 lead.

Germany hit five shots in the streak, including a variety of hooks, jumpers and layups.

Steve Henson on Lew Hill: ‘We lost a good coach and a great man’

Steve Henson’s emotions ranged from elation to devastation — all within 24 hours. On Saturday, the UTSA coach felt a surge of energy when his team romped to a 90-47 victory to complete a two-game road sweep at Florida International.

But by Sunday evening, after the team had returned from its triumphant trip to Miami, he felt only sadness after learning that a long-time friend in the coaching fraternity had passed away.

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

UTSA head coach Steve Henson — Photo by Joe Alexander

With his surging Roadrunners preparing for a weekend home series against Florida Atlantic, Henson on Tuesday talked to reporters on a zoom call about the death of UT Rio Grande Valley coach Lew Hill.

“Probably be hard for me to talk about it very much, to be honest,” Henson said. “Just devastating news on Sunday.”

Hill, 55, died a day after coaching his last game. In his fifth season as coach of the Vaqueros, his team lost 77-75 on Saturday night at Texas Southern. School officials announced the coach’s death Sunday night. The cause of death wasn’t known.

The coach’s passing hit his friends at UTSA hard.

Henson had worked for 12 years with Hill on Lon Kruger-led coaching staffs at UNLV and Oklahoma. Assistant Mike Peck had been with Hill on the UNLV staff. Another UTSA assistant, Scott Thompson, worked under Kruger and with Henson and Hill for five seasons with the Sooners, highlighted by a 2016 trip to the Final Four in Houston.

“Twelve years together,” Henson said. “Very, very good friends. He was a good man. It’s really, really heartbreaking. Stayed in very close contact with him. Talked to him pretty regularly. He was dealing with some health issues. Breaks my heart. To watch him … continue to grow, he was such a mentor to the players.

“He had a reputation as a very good recruiter, which he was.

“But after the kids landed in our programs at UNLV and Oklahoma, he was terrific mentoring them. He was a father figure to those who needed a father figure. He grew as a coach. He grew as a man … It’s heartbreaking. We lost a good coach and a great man. Our prayers are with (his wife) Renee and all of his family.”

After the 2015-16 season, Henson, Peck and Thompson came to UTSA, while Hill got the head coaching job at UT Rio Grande Valley.

Hill made five-win improvements in each of his first three years, culminating with a 20-win season in 2018-19 that saw the Vaqueros win an NCAA Division I postseason games for the first time while hosting two rounds of the CIT.

For his efforts, Hill was a finalist for the 2019 Ben Jobe Award, presented annually to the top minority coach in Division I men’s basketball. In total, the Vaqueros made two postseason appearances under Hill, including an appearance in the 2018 CBI.

Henson: ‘We think we have a good chance to win this weekend’

The UTSA Roadrunners have enjoyed a productive week of practice and will approach this weekend’s Conference USA games at Florida International as an opportunity to spark a run to the end of the regular season.

If they win on Friday night for their first road victory, well, that would be nice, too.

In their last outing, they collapsed down the stretch in a 69-51 loss to the UTEP Miners, falling to 0-8 on the road this season.

“To lose at UTEP is not the end of the world,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said in a Wednesday afternoon zoom call. “Put that behind us. Look forward. We think we have a good chance to win this weekend.”

The Roadrunners will play the Panthers at 6 p.m. on Friday and at 1 p.m. on Saturday in Miami, at the Ocean Bank Convocation Center.

Records

UTSA 8-9, 4-6
FIU 9-10, 2-8

Coming up

UTSA has eight games left in the regular season. After playing two in Florida against the Panthers, the Roadrunners return home on Feb. 12-13 to face the Florida Atlantic Owls (8-7, 3-3). After that, they’ll go back out on the road to face the Charlotte 49ers (9-7, 5-3) on Feb. 19-20. UTSA is set to complete the regular season at home on Feb. 26-27 against the UAB Blazers (14-2, 7-1). The C-USA tournament is March 10-13 in Frisco.

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.