ARLINGTON, Texas – There’s a Texas Two-Step located in this sprawling suburb between Dallas and Fort Worth. The home of the Dallas Cowboys and the Texas Rangers, the UT-Arlington basketball team and its star player are both moving up from under-the-radar status.
In the state of Texas over the last two seasons, the Mavericks have has won 51 games; only nearby SMU has won more (55). Two seasons ago, it won back-to-back road games at Ohio State and Memphis then lost in overtime at Texas. Last year, it beat Texas for the first time and knocked off a ranked team for the first time by winning at Saint Mary’s; the Gaels lost five games three to national runner up Gonzaga, to Arizona and to UTA.
Former UTA player Scott Cross, who was one of the youngest coaches (age 32) in Division I when he took over in April 2006, has steadily built a winning program. In addition to being able to recruit the talent-rich Metroplex on a tank of gas, Cross’ program got a boost with the opening College Park Center in February of 2012. The new basketball arena replaced the previous homecourt – Texas Hall, a 76,000-square foot proscenium theater. Games were played on the stage – seriously – with a seating capacity of just over 2,500.
“He took over a program that had had little success and brought it great success and notoriety,” Texas State coach Danny Kaspar, a Sun Belt Conference rival of UTA, said of Cross. “Offensively, he puts great pressure on you by pushing the ball, lots of ball screens, they run so many good things on offense. If you’re not prepared, they can run you out of the gym.
“His teams play very hard, they don’t let up on defensive end. Some teams that push it offensively but you don’t see the all-out defensive effort. Scott’s team will “D” you up. They get up eight, they want to step on your throat and get up by 18.”
UTA’s history includes its unique former home court, one NCAA Tournament appearance and no former Mavericks on an NBA roster. That could well change. Kevin Hervey, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound senior forward has displayed the offensive skills that could land him on an NBA roster.
If his knees hold up.
Hervey, an Arlington native, said he planned to attend the UTA (his older brother had) regardless of basketball but the summer before his senior season he started getting attention from other schools. But that attention waned when he tore the ACL in his right knee and missed his senior season.
He started 16 games as a freshman with the Mavericks and then became a force as a sophomore. He averaged 18.1 points and 9.8 rebounds before his season ended in late January 2016. Another torn ACL, this time in his left knee.
Hervey had an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee in August as a cleanup procedure.
“I have to approach the game differently now, almost like a professional. I have to take extra time to stretch, get on the stationary bike,” he said. “I just have to warm up more than the other guys. Instead of an extra 15 minutes in bed, I’ve got to get to the gym. Getting my muscles loose and fired up takes the stress of my joints, my knees, my ankles.”
Last season as he removed the rust of his second ACL surgery, he finished as the Sun Belt Conference player of the year, averaging 17.1 points and 8.5 rebounds. The second ACL surgery and recovery were slightly easier because he knew what to expect. The mental aspect is still a challenge.
“Sometimes I think I can’t do something when I really can,” he said. “Your mind can be a dangerous place. You can be in your own head and doubt yourself or get over the hump and push past the mental block. Diving for a loose ball. My body is fine doing that. Going through two ACLs, in my mind, there’s that doubt, hesitation.”
Hervey, along with senior Erick Neal, is one of two returning starters from last season’s regular-season Sun Belt champions.
“Kevin is a great player, he’s a pro already,” said Neal, one of the quickest point guards you’ve never heard about. “He has that ‘dog’ mentality, like me.”
Last season, UTA beat Texas for the first time and posted its first victory over a ranked opponent at Saint Mary’s. Those impressive nonconference road wins plus the Sun Belt regular-season title meant little when the Mavericks failed to win the conference tournament title and automatic NCAA bid. Senior starter Jalen Jones was lost to injury after the opening-round victory and UTA lost to Texas State, a team it had defeated twice, in the semifinals.
“You go to the conference tournament and you get beat by a team you know you can beat … that was crushing, it sucks,” Neal said. “Our mentality is take nothing for granted, just win all of ‘em. People don’t believe we can win if we get in the (NCAA) tournament. But we do. If we get that chance, best believe we’re gonna go hard.”
The focus on three games in the Sun Belt tournament conflicts Cross. On one hand, he wants last season’s disappointing finish to drive and inspire this season’s team. On the other hand, crossing each game off the schedule is the only logical approach.
“We’re not gonna define ourselves by one game, I want them to define themselves by what they accomplished over the course of the season.” Cross said. “I have to talk like (Dallas Cowboys coach) Jason Garrett and focus on the process. Control what you can control. If you’re thinking about the NCAA tournament, you have no chance. You’re gonna lose sight of diving on the floor … the more you focus on it, the harder it’s gonna be. Do the little things right every single day.
“If you think about outcomes, you’re gonna miss the shot, you’re gonna turn it over, you’re gonna forget the play. Just get lost in the flow of the game.”
Cross is concerned about replacing the intangibles provided by the three departed starters. But UTA is again favored to win the Sun Belt; Hervey and Neal are a formidable duo that should help the Mavericks continue to build a profile that will put them on, instead of under, the radar.
“They are a great one-two punch,” Cross said in the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. “As far as having two guys who can put the ball in the bucket and go make plays … Erick and Kevin can score the ball as well as anybody in our league and probably you can put them up there with the best in the country.”