By Antonio Castillo
Ten minutes into Wednesday's practice, Head Coach Steve Henson jumped all over his squad. There was confusion in running a certain play and it drew his ire. His voice echoed through the Convocation Center reminding the team that knowing the offense is absolutely critical. As a team, UTSA is only shooting 39% from the field this season and that, in and of it self, is reason to know offensive sets forward and backwards. His players responded as they tightened up and got in gear to make sure they're ready when they host Florida Atlantic on Thursday evening.
As the team hits the midway point of the season, the success the Roadrunners have had has been a pleasant surprise. UTSA has a 7-9 overall record and are 2-1 in conference play. Included in those loses are five games where UTSA suffered defeat by a margin of eight points or less. There were nip and tuck games all on the road with Fresno State, Utah Valley, and A&M-Corpus Christi. The team also saw a 10 point second half lead dissipate at Oregon State. It's not unfair to say that UTSA could legitimately be a few games above the .500 mark.
Coming into the season, everyone knew the rebuilding job Henson was facing was going to be a monumental one. Thus far, he's taken it head on and started building the program back to respectability. Here's a look at the the good and bad, along with our overall grade, on how UTSA basketball has performed this season.
Have expectations been met?
They've been met and obliterated. The team is already +2 wins from last year's five-win season. Three weeks into CUSA play, the 'Runners are right in the middle of the standings at 2-1.
Protecting Henson's House
Remarkably, UTSA is a perfect 6-0 at home. The friendly confines of the Convo have proven to be an advantage so far this season. In their six wins, the young 'birds have held four teams to 60 points or less.
Emphasis on D
Rebounding and defense is at the forefront for a Steve Henson team. It's not lock-tight defense yet, but it has drastically improved from last season. A year ago, UTSA was giving up 84 points a game. This season, the 'Runners only 69 points per game. That's a vast improvement due to many factors: coaching, grit, effort, and philosophy. Henson has brought a different and fresh mindset that has reinvigorated the Roadrunners. That energy certainly shows on the defensive end. The new mindset on defense has also paid dividends on the glass. UTSA is at a size disadvantage against almost every team they have faced. Despite the lack of height, the 'Runners have three players averaging five rebounds or more a game. Byron Frohnen leads the way at seven rpg, Jeff Beverly has 6 rpg, and Nick Allen has 5 rpb. For the season, UTSA out-rebounds opponents 5+ rpg.
Battling Through Adversity
It was an ominous start to the season when Coach Henson confirmed that returning leading scorer Christian Wilson was suspended indefinitely. After his arrest in November, Wilson was dismissed from the team. That cause many to wonder where would the 'Runners get offense from. In addition to Wilson's departure, starting senior shooting guard J.R. Harris, who averaged 12pts a game last season, was sidelined with a knee injury in the second game of the season. There were rumblings the injury could cost Harris the entire season, but he did return to action vs LA Tech this past Saturday. Finally, seldom-used senior wing Nick Billingsley developed into a scoring threat off the bench averaging 11 ppg as the team's 6th man. He was also pretty good from three point land connecting on 38% of his threes. His offense was a much welcomed jolt to a unit that lacks offensive punch. Unfortunately, Billingsley is now in limbo facing academic issues and could be lost for the rest of the season. He did not play in UTSA's upset win vs La Tech and did not practice with the team on Wednesday. Even with all of that adversity, the team has continued battle.
As a team, this is the Achilles heel of UTSA. The 'Runners have had numerous and costly dry spells where they simply cannot buy a bucket. For the season, the team is shooting 39% from the floor and only 29% from behind the three point line.
Taking Care of the Rock
Currently the 'Birds are at a -1.4 turnover ratio, averaging 14 a game, in comparison to only 11 assists. Good shooting or not, turning over the ball will cost you wins and UTSA must do a better job going forward if they want to remain competitive and win in conference play.
OVERALL GRADE: B
We did not foresee UTSA surpassing their win total so early on in the season. Add to that a 2-1 conference mark with a signature win at LA Tech, the toughest venue in all of CUSA to win at. The Bulldogs had a record of 73-3 at home in their last 76 games, a stretch spanning back multiple years. The 'Runners continue to work on their shooting, but Henson and his staff will have to find snipers on the recruiting trail to help the team improve on that going forward. Right now it's an ideology that "your best offense is a good defense." That's the identity the Roadrunners have established for themselves this season. UTSA is formidable on defense, holding opponents to 41% shooting, while they out-rebounding much bigger teams. Most nights that will keep the 'Runners in the game. As we've seen, that's not a bad recipe to win a fair share of games. All things considered, the team has a renewed vigor, energy, and just an expectation that they can compete night in and night out against anyone. It may not be as quick as some would like, but there is a buzz building around the program and it's headed in the right direction.