NCAA tournament opener has a San Antonio flavor

A&M-Corpus Christi guard Jalen Jackson playing at the UTSA Convocation Center on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. - photo by Joe Alexander

San Antonio’s Jalen Jackson leads the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders into the NCAA tournament today. Jackson is a junior guard from Wagner High School. — File photo by Joe Alexander

When the first game of the 2022 NCAA tournament tips off at 5:40 p.m. today, a couple of familiar faces from the Alamo City will step into the spotlight for the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders.

A little more than 30 years ago, the coach of the Islanders, Steve Lutz, was scrapping around in a high school gym and playing for the East Central Hornets.

Only three years ago, Jalen Jackson, the Islanders’ starting guard, was playing in the backcourt for the Wagner Thunderbirds.

Today, they will try to make history when the Islanders face the Texas Southern Tigers in an NCAA First Four game at Dayton Arena in Ohio.

They’ll try to lead the Islanders in their 23rd year as a basketball program to their first NCAA victory. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi started basketball in 1999-2000. The Islanders were independent until 2006-07, when they made their debut in the Southland Conference.

That season, the Islanders also made their NCAA debut and lost a heartbreaker, falling 76-63 to Wisconsin.

Taking the floor at the United Center in Chicago, the 15th-seeded Islanders were led by another Alamo City standout — center Chris Daniels from Sam Houston High School — and they stunned the crowd by surging to a 25-7 lead with five minutes left in the first half.

The lead didn’t last long. The Badgers rallied behind All-American Alando Tucker’s 23 points to win going away. At the time, the NCAA tournament consisted of 64 teams. Today, it is a 68-team field.

That is the reason that the Islanders and the Tigers are playing, essentially, in a bracket outside of a bracket. The four winners in the First Four games move on to play in the Round of 64.

In the case of the Islanders and the Tigers, the winner will fly out of Dayton on Wednesday and head to Fort Worth, where they will face the Midwest Region’s No. 1 seeded Kansas Jayhawks in an R64 game on Thursday.

According to rosters examined by The JB Replay, 10 players from the San Antonio area are on NCAA men’s basketball tournament rosters.

Jackson, Texas Tech’s Kevin McCullar (Wagner), Arkansas’ Stanley Umude (Warren) and Wyoming’s Brendan Wenzel (O’Connor) have started games this year, though Wenzel has been coming off the bench lately.

Freshman Langston Love (Steele) was projected to play a significant role this season for the top-seeded Baylor Bears, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury in October.

Love is sitting out as a redshirt.

S.A. players to watch

Adam Benhayoune, a 6-5 LSU freshman from O’Connor.

Jalen Jackson, a 5-11 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi junior from Wagner. Jackson averages 6.6 points, 2.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.4 steals.

Kijana Love, Baylor, 6-1 senior guard from Steele; transfer from New Hampshire and St. Edward’s

Langston Love, Baylor, 6-5 freshman guard from Steele and Montverde Academy (Fla.).

Kevin McCullar, Texas Tech, 6-6 redshirt junior guard from Wagner. McCullar averages 9.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.4 steals.

Stanley Umude, Arkansas, 6-6 senior from Warren; transfer from South Dakota. Umude averages 11.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.1 steals.

Ethan White, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, 6-3 grad student guard from East Central

Brendan Wenzel, Wyoming, 6-7 sophomore guard from O’Connor; transfer from Utah. Wenzel averages 5.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.3 steals

Players from San Antonio area who attended high school out of the area, now on rosters for NCAA tournament teams

Zach Clemence, Kansas, 6-10 freshman forward, hometown listed as San Antonio, from Findlay Prep (Nev.) and Sunrise Christian Academy (Kan.)

Micah Peavy, TCU, 6-7 sophomore forward, hometown listed as Cibolo, from Duncanville; transfer from Texas Tech

Lutz-led Islanders will play in the NCAA tournament

San Antonio native Steve Lutz is going to the NCAA tournament in his first season as a head coach.

A&M-Corpus Christi coach Steve Lutz at the UTSA Convocation Center on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. - photo by Joe Alexander

NCAA tournament bound Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is 23-11 under first-year coach Steve Lutz . – File photo by Joe Alexander

The Lutz-led Texas A&M Corpus Christi Islanders clinched a berth in the Big Dance of college basketball with a 73-65 victory Saturday over the Southeastern Louisiana Lions.

The victory for the fourth-seeded Islanders against the No. 2 Lions came in the finals of the Southland Conference tournament in Katy.

Guards Jalen Jackson and Terrion Murdix led A&M-Corpus Christi in scoring with 13 points apiece.

Jackson, from San Antonio Wagner High School, also had six rebounds and five assists.

The Lions scored 13 straight points early in the game and led the Islanders 16-6.

In response, the Islanders roared from behind with a 29-12 burst that gave them a 35-28 lead with two minutes left in the half.

The Lions came out energized after intermission, erasing a five-point halftime deficit and taking a one-point lead.

A 3-pointer by Southeastern’s Keon Clergeot made it 40-39 in favor of Southeastern.

From there, the Islanders retaliated when De’Lazarus Keys hit a layup and San Antonio Brinson added a 3-point jumper on an assist from Jackson.

A&M-Corpus Chrisi never trailed again.

The tournament served as a new season, in some respects, for the Islanders. At one point, they lost five in a row and six out of seven during the SLC schedule.

When they arrived in Katy, they turned it on, beating Houston Baptist, 75-60 in their opener. In Friday’s semifinals, they stepped it up again and defeated the top-seeded Nicholls State Colonels, 71-64.

After knocking off Southeastern, they had secured victories over the two best teams in the conference in a span of 24 hours.

As a result, the Islanders clinched the Southland’s automatic bid and earned their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2007 and only their second NCAA trip ever.

The Islanders started basketball in the 2002-03 season.

Lutz is a 1991 graduate of East Central High School who played for the Hornets under Stan Bonewitz, a member of the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame. In college, he played at Texas Lutheran University.

His coaching career has been marked with assistant coaching jobs at some of the best programs in the nation.

Prior to taking the A&M-Corpus Christi job, he worked under Matt Painter at Purdue in the Big Ten and under Greg McDermott at Creighton in the Big East.

Lutz has toiled in the state of Texas as assistants at both Incarnate Word and at SMU.

Notable

Teams from the state of Texas finished 2-1 on Saturday in conference tournament finals, as both Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Texas Southern won and Abilene Christian lost.

Given those results, Abilene Christian is now out of contention for an NCAA bid. It’s also possible that SMU got knocked out of the NCAA picture, as well, with a Saturday afternoon loss to Memphis in the American Athletic Conference semifinals.

Now, it seems that fans might be able to expect eight bids going to teams in the state — to Baylor, Texas Tech, Texas and TCU in the Big 12; to Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference; to Houston in the AAC; to Texas Southern in the SWAC and to A&M-Corpus Christi in the Southland.

NCAA automatic bids

Cal State Fullerton — Big West
Arizona — Pac-12
New Mexico State — Western Athletic Conference
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi — Southland Conference
Virginia Tech — Atlantic Coast Conference
Alabama-Birmingham — Conference USA
Montana State — Big Sky
Akron (Ohio) — Mid-American Conference
Villanova — Big East
Texas Southern — Southwestern Athletic Conference
Boise State — Mountain West
Kansas — Big 12
St. Peter’s (N.J.) — MAAC
Norfolk State (Va.) — MEAC
Vermont — America East
Colgate (N.Y.) — Patriot League
Gonzaga (Wash.) — West Coast Conference
Jacksonville State (Ala.) — Atlantic Sun
Bryant (R.I.) — Northeast Conference
Delaware — Colonial Athletic Association
Wright State (Ohio) — Horizon League
South Dakota State — Summit League
Chattanooga (Tenn.) — Southern Conference
Georgia State — Sun Belt
Longwood (Va.) — Big South
Loyola-Chicago — Missouri Valley
Murray State (Ky.) — Ohio Valley

Lutz-led Islanders aim for a Southland title and an NCAA bid

A&M-Corpus Christi coach Steve Lutz at the UTSA Convocation Center on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. - photo by Joe Alexander

First-year Texas A&M-Corpus Christi coach Steve Lutz is a 1991 East Central High School graduate. A&M-Corpus Christi plays Southeastern Louisiana for the Southland Conference title an an NCAA tournament automatic bid tonight. – File photo by Joe Alexander

One coach and several players from the San Antonio area are vying this weekend for a chance to advance to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

In addition, as many as 10 teams from the state of Texas could make the 68-team field, which is set to be unveiled on Sunday night.

For San Antonio area hoops fans, the intriguing storyline for the weekend revolves around Steve Lutz, a 1991 East Central High School graduate.

Lutz is a first-year head coach at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and has led the Islanders into the Southland Conference tournament final.

The Islanders will play for the SLC’s championship and NCAA automatic bid Saturday night when they take on the Southeastern Louisiana Lions. Tipoff is set for 8:30 p.m. at the Merrell Center in Katy.

If Lutz’s team wins, it means that one of his players, guard Jalen Jackson from Wagner High School, also would be guaranteed of making a trip to the NCAA’s Big Dance.

The fourth-seeded Islanders took a big step toward their dream Friday when they knocked off the No. 1 seed Nicholls State Colonels. Nicholls had won three games against A&M-Corpus Christi this season.

History notwithstanding, A&M-Corpus Christi defeated Nicholls, 71-64, in the SLC tournament semifinals.

Local players to watch

The NCAA tournament starts next week with four opening-round games, followed by rounds of 64 and 32 on the weekend.

On the second weekend, the tournament will be held at four sites, including San Antonio’s AT&T Center, which is hosting the South Regional. The Final Four is scheduled April 2 and 4 at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans.

Several San Antonio area players could get a shot to play in the tournament, including Texas Tech guard Kevin McCullar, Jr. from Wagner and Arkansas guard Stanley Umude from Warren.

Both have played roles as starters this season, though McCullar has been coming off the bench lately as he makes his way back from an injury.

On Saturday, the Red Raiders are playing the Kansas Jayhawks for the Big 12 title, while Umude and the Razorbacks played in a Southeastern Conference semifinal against the Texas A&M Aggies.

Texas Tech and Arkansas are both expected to make the NCAA tournament no matter what.

A&M is on the bubble but appears to be in good shape after a victory Friday over fourth-ranked Auburn and another victory Saturday over 15th-ranked Arkansas.

In addition, Brendan Wenzel from O’Connor is another player to watch from the San Antonio area.

He has been a starter this season for the Wyoming Cowboys, who have been projected as an at-large selection despite getting bounced out of the Mountain West tournament.

Texas-based schools in the hunt

The state of Texas, meanwhile, could produce as many as nine or 10 teams in the NCAA tournament. From the Big 12, the NCAA field is expected to include Texas Tech, Baylor, Texas and TCU.

From the Southeastern Conference, Texas A&M remains strongly in the hunt.

From the American Athletic Conference, the Coach Kelvin Sampson’s University of Houston Cougars are expected to make the field, and the SMU Mustangs remain in contention.

Both are playing in conference semifinals Saturday in Fort Worth. Houston plays Tulane at 2 p.m. and SMU takes on Memphis at 4 p.m.

Also:

Southwestern Athletic Conference — Texas Southern is in position to get the automatic bid Saturday afternoon, with the Tigers playing the Alcorn State Braves. The conference tournament title game is set for 5 p.m. in Birmingham, Ala.

Southland Conference — Texas A&M-Corpus Christi vs. Southeastern Louisiana, Saturday, 8:30 p.m., at Katy.

Western Athletic Conference — Abilene Christian will attempt to qualify for the NCAA field for the second straight season. The Wildcats will play the New Mexico State Aggies for the WAC title and auto bid. The game is set for Saturday at 9 p.m. in Las Vegas.

Tenacious Islanders roll to 77-58 victory over the Roadrunners

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi players and coach Steve Lutz (right) celebrate after their victory over UTSA on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi players and coach Steve Lutz (right) celebrate after their victory over UTSA on Sunday at the Convocation Center. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Any day that San Antonio native Steve Lutz can spend with his family, he counts it as a very good day.

With his mother, Pat, and others on hand in the stands at the UTSA Convocation Center, he knew Sunday would be one of those days, no matter how his Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders played.

Jordan Ivy-Curry. A&M-Corpus Christi beat UTSA 77-58 on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA guard Jordan Ivy-Curry scored 21 points for his second 20-plus performance of the season. – Photo by Joe Alexander

It was made all the more special for the Islanders’ first-year head coach when his players produced an impressive road victory, downing the UTSA Roadrunners, 77-58.

Despite starting guard Jalen Jackson playing only 11 minutes because of foul trouble, the Islanders broke out to a 40-29 lead at halftime and were never seriously threatened in what clearly was their best overall effort of the young season.

UTSA pulled to within seven twice early in the second half, but the game belonged to the visiting team, which held advantages in shooting percentage (50 to 31.9), rebounding (52-34) and points in the paint (50-26).

Jackson, a junior transfer from North Texas, scored 19 points in A&M-Corpus Christi’s two-point victory over Denver last week.

Islanders coach Steve Lutz once played for San Antonio Sports Hall of Famer Stan Bonewitz, Sr., at East Central High School.- Photo by Joe Alexander

Islanders coach Steve Lutz once played for San Antonio Sports Hall of Famer Stan Bonewitz, Sr., at East Central High School. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Saddled with the foul problems on Sunday, the former Wagner High School standout finished with only three against the Roadrunners.

Not to worry. A&M-Corpus Christi had more than enough firepower to storm past UTSA, sweeping all three games in a multi-team event hosted by the Roadrunners that started last week.

Forward Isaac Mushila dominated the day with 21 points and 17 rebounds. With Jackson on the bench much of the afternoon, Terrion Murdix stepped up to play 27 minutes. He hit 4 of 9 shots from the field, scored 8 points and passed for 5 assists.

“The guys are both starters,” said Lutz, a 1991 East Central High School graduate. “I believe we have six, seven, maybe even eight starters on this team, depending on the day and the situation.”

Freshman Lamin Sabally, a 6-foot-7 freshman, played 10 minutes and hit both shot attempts. - Photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA’s Lamin Sabally, a 6-foot-7 freshman forward, played 10 minutes and hit both shot attempts. – Photo by Joe Alexander

The Islanders started fast, putting two fouls on Roadrunners’ center Jacob Germany, and surged into 8-0 lead. Pretty soon, it was 14-4 and 16-6. UTSA sliced A&M-Corpus Christi’s advantage to three 10 minutes into the game.

But that is as close as the Roadrunners would get, as the Islanders kept attacking the basket and pounding the glass. After it was all over, A&M-Corpus Christi left the building having never trailed.

“We lost pretty much every facet tonight,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “Shooting, it’s easy to look at that. You can also look at a couple of other areas, it’s just as frustrating.

“We haven’t been real, real sharp yet on the offensive end. We got to figure out what our identity is going to be down there.”

Guard Jordan Ivy-Curry emerged as the lone bright spot for the Roadrunners with 21 points. The sophomore from La Marque hit 7 of 16 shots from the field, but he had precious little help from his teammates. Everyone else combined to shoot 15 of 53.

Records

UTSA 3-3
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 4-1

Coming up

Wednesday, 2 p.m. — Lamar at UTSA.