Home » Columns » Currently Reading:

Trojans, Mavericks reminiscent of 1997-98 runs by UIC, Detroit

December 22, 2015 Columns No Comments

It’s been a long time since a conference out of the spotlight furnished two teams coming from seemingly nowhere to challenge for NCAA Tournament berths the way the Sun Belt Conference has this year with Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington.

It’s also not unprecedented, and that’s said not to take away from the fun of their stories one bit. For if one wants an illustration of how long it has been, the conference that last pulled off such a feat has since changed its name, lost three members and added four more in the time since.

To put it another way: Wimp Sanderson was the head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock back then, still sporting his famous plaid sport coats.

It’s still early in the season, and we’d be the next in line to advise as much after virtually every coach in the country would do so first. Still, it’s hard to overstate just how much we should appreciate what the Trojans and Mavericks have done in November and December.

As non-conference play winds down and RPI ratings slowly start to pick up more meaning, the teams picked to finish fifth and eighth, respectively, in the Sun Belt preseason poll are both firmly in the top 50 in the RPI. If that holds into March, they’ll certainly be worthy of serious at-large consideration for the NCAA Tournament.

The duo is a combined 16-2 overall against Division I competition. UT-Arlington has won at Memphis, Ohio State and UTEP and one of its two losses was in overtime at Texas-the same place North Carolina also recently lost a close game. The Mavericks also were picked eighth in the Sun Belt and returned just two starters.

UALR has won at DePaul, San Diego State and Tulsa. At 10-0 overall entering a tough road game at Texas Tech on Tuesday, the Trojans are far and away the most unlikely unbeaten left and have been for some time. They’re also just three wins from matching their win total from all of last year. Oh yeah, and they’ve done it all with a new coach.

Both are doing it in different ways. UTA pounds the glass-especially on the offensive end, where it ranks third in the country with 16.8 offensive boards per game-and goes 10-deep with a lineup that isn’t huge but is tough and also has a breakout star in Kevin Hervey (17.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg). Little Rock is small-just two players in the rotation taller than 6-6-but plays some of the best team defense you will see all season. The Trojans lead the country in scoring defense (53.7 ppg) and rank eighth in field goal percentage defense (36.3%) while offensively using a motion offense that bucks the tiresome current trend of endless ball screens.

If both were to dominate the Sun Belt and then lose in the conference tournament, they would be very worthy at-large picks for the NCAA Tournament-and completely unexpected before the season, very similar to how the Midwestern Collegiate Conference furnished Detroit and Illinois-Chicago as at-large picks in the 1998 tourney.

Never heard of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference? You have, except it has a different name now. The MCC (once also known as the Midwestern City Conference) changed its name to the Horizon League in 2001. In the early 1990s, it was regularly competing for an at-large bid each year, if not necessarily more than one, though it was soon used as a steppingstone by more than a few programs, with Dayton, Evansville, Marquette, Saint Louis and Xavier among those jumping from the league to higher perches.

The MCC had sent two teams to the NCAA Tournament in four of seven years from 1990-96. It had never sent three, though, and only sent one in 1997-tournament champion Butler, which went as a 13 seed and was hammered by Cincinnati.

Coming in, 1997-98 hardly looked like the setting for a banner year, but that’s exactly what it was. Detroit and Illinois-Chicago both earned at-large bids, with Butler coming out as the surprise winner of the conference tournament (ironically without having to beat either one).

Detroit and UIC finished a game behind the Bulldogs in the conference standings the year before, but at 16-13 and 15-14, respectively, were nowhere near NCAA or even NIT consideration. A year later, though, the two shared the MCC regular season title, and both finished in the top 40 in the RPI on the strength of both defeating Michigan State (an eventual 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament) in the regular season-UIC convincingly at home by 12 points, Detroit on the road at the Breslin Center by three. The scope of the Flames’ and Titans’ upsets at that time probably didn’t rate as much nationally as some of the surprises  by UTA and UALR this year, for they happened in the early days of the internet’s popularity and also was a time when this Joe Lunardi guy was just starting to become a household name in the sport with his “bracketology.”

Both teams got off to 10-2 starts out of conference before finishing 12-2 in league play. In addition to beating the Spartans, the Flames also lost by a point at Illinois (an eventual 5 seed in NCAAs) and defeated MVC champion Illinois State and won by 21 over a Valparaiso team that eventually made the Sweet 16. UIC had the MCC player of the year in guard Mark Miller and Bryant Notree and Anthony Coomes also were all-conference players, and the three combined to average over 48 points per game.

Detroit’s resume was a tad shakier, but a split with UIC in the regular season plus a win at Iowa State and an 18-point victory over eventual at-large pick Western Michigan sewed up a bid. Those were the years of coach Perry Watson’s balanced, defense-minded outfits, including this one led by first-team all-conference pics Derrick Hayes and Brian Alexander that also included a pair of players (Desmond Ferguson and Jermaine Jackson) who would play in the NBA.

More notably, neither team lost often, and when they did it was close. Both entered the conference tournament with just four losses, though it should be noted this was a time when schedules were generally shorter and there were far fewer exempted tournaments. Entering the NCAA tourney, three of UIC’s five losses were by two points or less, a fourth was by six and the lone game close to a blowout came at the hands of Detroit. The Titans’ resume was similar-four losses by five points or less and a fifth at eventual NCAA 2 seed Cincinnati by 10.

Illinois-Chicago eventually earned a 9 seed in its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to UNC-Charlotte 77-62 in the first round. Detroit was given a 10 seed and surprised St. John’s 66-64 in the first round before falling to 2 seed Purdue 80-65 in the second round.

It remains to be seen if UT-Arlington and Little Rock can keep up that pace. We know neither will have a win as high profile as either Detroit or UIC did in 1998, and at this point the Sun Belt’s place of 18th in conference RPI is far behind the MCC’s finish of 12th that year. At the same time, if the Mavericks and Trojans did make the tourney-even if one is the tourney champion-the conference’s accomplishment might be more notable in that the Sun Belt-a league that once had as many as four teams in the tourney in 1986-has had just one at-large qualifier in the last 20 years (South Alabama in 2008).

Regardless, it will be a fun story to watch, and rather than worrying too much about their postseason situation-as seems to happen in some way to so many teams on the fence in February and March-one hopes the teams and their fans can just enjoy the ride.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam


Comment on this Article:

Subscribe to Hoopville

Enter your email address to subscribe to Hoopville


Hoopville Archives

College Basketball Tonight

We hope you enjoyed COLLEGE BASKETBALL TONIGHT during the 2016 NCAA Tournament. COLLEGE BASKETBALL TONIGHT is a comprehensive look at the NCAA Tournament hosted by veteran college basketball broadcaster Ted Sarandis, along with co-hosts Mike Jarvis and Terry O'Connor, both former Division I coaches. It also included many great guests, including Hoopville's own Phil Kasiecki.

The show aired on AM 710 WOR in New York City on Sunday evenings starting with Selection Sunday and running through the NCAA Tournament.

Here are links to the shows:

March 13, 2016 - First hour | Second hour

March 20, 2016 - First hour | Second hour

March 27, 2016 - First hour | Second hour

April 3, 2016 - First hour | Second hour

Everybody Needs a Head Coach

Former college basketball coach Mike Jarvis has a new book out, Everybody Needs a Head Coach.

"As you read this book, I hope that Coach Jarvis' experiences inspire you to find your purpose in life."
-Patrick Ewing, NBA Hall of Fame center

"Mike Jarvis' is one of my special friends. I am so pleased that he has taken the time to write this fabulous book."
-Mike Krzyzewski, Five-time NCAA championship head coach, Duke Blue Devils

"In reading this book, I can see that Mike hasn't lost his edge or his purpose. Readers should take a look at what he has to say."
-Jim Calhoun, Three-time NCAA champion, UConn Men's basketball

Review on Hoopville coming soon!

Coaching Changes and NBA Draft Early Entrants

The coaching carousel is moving. Keep track of the latest coaching changes right here on Hoopville.

Also, keep track of players who have declared early for the NBA Draft.

Hoopville Podcasts

Talking Hoops With Ted Sarandis – January 11, 2018

January 11, 2018 by

In our latest podcast, we talk about several big pieces of news away from game play, one of which puts a lot in perspective. We also talk about the lack of dominant teams and how this has shown up in the results, especially this past weekend.

Talking Hoops With Ted Sarandis – January 4, 2018

January 4, 2018 by

In our latest podcast, we start with a big game in the Big East, then move on to the sudden lack of undefeated teams, a big injury in the ACC, and a powerhouse that looks vulnerable in a stacked conference they have long ruled.

Talking Hoops With Ted Sarandis – December 8, 2017

December 8, 2017 by

In our latest podcast, we talk about a bizarre finish to an early-season tournament game, the Pac-12’s early struggles, Florida teams going in different directions and two northeast teams trending less relevant even as they excite fans at a famous arena.

Talking Hoops With Ted Sarandis – November 22, 2017

November 22, 2017 by

In our pre-Thanksgiving podcast, we look at a key injury that is likely to be devastating for his team and an under-the-radar 4-0 week, then move on to some early SEC impressions and a couple of teams that just continue to win.

Talking Hoops With Ted Sarandis – November 9, 2017

November 10, 2017 by

The season is almost here, and we take a look at some of what to expect this coming season. We have preseason polls, conference changes, a look at some conferences and some matchups to start the season.

Phil Kasiecki on Twitter

Recruiting Coverage

Lincoln captures Hamilton Park title

August 15, 2017 by

For the first time, a public school won the Hamilton Park Summer League, and they were led by a big effort from a junior point guard in the title game.

Notes from a day at the 2017 Boston Shootout

June 12, 2017 by

Some news and notes coming from the second and final day of action at the 2017 Boston Shootout, where the host program provided plenty of talent, but so did a program that produced a team that beat them.

Notes from a day at the 2017 Northeast Hoops Festival

April 11, 2017 by

The Northeast Hoops Festival helped bring in the new spring travel season in New England, and we have notes from some of Saturday’s action.

2016 Boston Back to School Showcase notes

September 12, 2016 by

We look back at the 2016 Boston Back to School Showcase, where a couple of Boston City League teams were among the most impressive on the day.

2016 Hoopville Spring Finale championship recap

June 28, 2016 by

We look back at the championship games of the 2016 Hoopville Spring Finale, which had a big local flavor as one might have expected.