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Author: Joel Valdez – @UTSARowdy
It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Roadrunner basketball is nigh.
The UTSA men’s basketball team is expected to play a 31-game schedule between November and March following last year’s overall record of 15-11 which was achieved during a rather tumultuous and irregular season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Roadrunner legends Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace – the two top scorers in program history – have graduated but sixth-year Head Coach Steve Henson returns some of the best talent the Convocation Center has ever seen in Jordan Ivy-Curry, Jacob Germany, Cedrick Alley Jr and Erik Czumbel. UTSA will also be welcoming newcomers like Aleu Aleu, Lamin Sabally, Josh Farmer, Dhieu Deing, Christian Tucker and Azavier Johnson.
Regardless of questions about this team’s style of play or early starters, I believe the conference landscape will evolve quite a bit between now and January so here I will only be previewing the looming non-conference matchups for the Roadrunners and how I predict those will shake out.
Before I jump into how I see each game I should mention a couple of big takeaways from the non-conference schedule. For a program that has played so well at home under Henson I am elated to see that this is the most non-conference home games UTSA will host in years (that I can recall) – thanks largely to the UTSA Invitational – and that UTSA is going to play teams from nine different conferences. Hats off to UTSA Athletics for scheduling such a UTSA-friendly slate! Regardless of obstacles this team faces this season it will surely help to play in front of passionate Roadrunner fans much more frequently than usually afforded to the players that wear navy and orange.
The first game of the season is a home game – a visit from San Antonio’s Trinity University Tigers. It’s been over three decades since these two teams have played. When these teams last met the Roadrunners decimated the Tigers 93-53 in the Convocation Center. This time around will be very experimental with UTSA starters and bench players running on and off the court throughout the night. Keep your eye on the pace of play and what kind of tempo this team is aiming for. Prediction: You can be disappointed for the season if a home win isn’t secured by at least 15 points and you have full permission to fall into an existential crisis if this kicks off the season in the loss column. Roadrunners by 30.
In what should be a game well-attended by Jacob Germany’s family on a Friday night in Norman, UTSA will first step foot outside of the Convo to visit an Oklahoma team that can truly shoot from anywhere on the court. This game will be one of the first for the Sooners under former Loyola head coach Porter Moser. After Oklahoma’s appearance in the NCAA Tournament in March longtime head coach Lon Kruger retired from coaching but this team might be even better now than most people are expecting. Even if UTSA’s tempo improves this season and Henson finds the right pieces I think this game is simply just too early in the season for the Roadrunners to put it all together for a win. Prediction: Oklahoma’s transfers, particularly the Groves brothers, get too far ahead early for UTSA to catch up and the Roadrunners fall by at least 25 points on the road.
Just three days later begins the UTSA multi-team event (MTE) in San Antonio featuring the 1955 NAIA national championship program Texas A&M-Commerce Lions, the Denver Pioneers known for their 2013 appearance in the NIT, and the 2006 Summit League Champions the IUPUI Jaguars. I am mentioning all opponents of the UTSA Invitational at once because last season they combined for 17 wins – just 2 more than UTSA – which was surely calculated when scheduling who would be making a stop at the Convo in November. Prediction: The Lions will be playing an exhibition game against UTSA so the Roadrunners WILL finish the year with at least one win. Denver and IUPUI may not be very convincing wins for UTSA but you should see the Roadrunners come out on top by least 10 points against those two visitors. If not, begin to worry a little bit.
Foresight would say that I should have included the Texas A&M–Corpus Christi men’s basketball team in the previous prediction but while their visit to San Antonio is not considered part of the MTE in San Antonio it might as well be. The Islanders were dead last in the Southland last season with just 5 wins all year. Prediction: UTSA by 15. The Islanders were 5-19 last season and two of those wins were over teams UTSA will see here as well – Our Lady of the Lake and Lamar.
In fact, if you were to ask which non-conference home game in November you absolutely want to be in the Bird Cage for it is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving matchup against former Southland Conference foe Lamar. Over 35 meetings since 1982 the point differential per game has been just 3 points between the Cardinals and the Roadrunners. It is Lamar – as UTSA’s 8th most common opponent all-time – who holds the best record against UTSA in any series of 35 meetings or more. In other words, UTSA literally has a winning record against all 7 other teams they’ve played more than Lamar and the two programs haven’t been in the same conference in nearly a decade. Prediction: This is going to the closest thing to a true challenge at home that the Roadrunners will have to face in calendar 2021. It’s tempting to lean into the 40 years of history where one of the teams wins by 3 points but the Convo should be lively enough for an unconvincing Roadrunner win the night before Turkey Day.
Speaking of ancient history, back in the 1980s and 90s UTSA students would make a short drive to downtown’s Hemisfair Arena for what was – at the time – a beloved city matchup between UTSA and St Mary’s. UTSA’s program has never been AP-ranked in college basketball but there were a number of years in that time where UTSA was a Top 30 or Top 40 program and the games played downtown showcased the city’s untapped basketball talent. For many of those years the meetings between the Roadrunners and the Rattlers was an essential opportunity to display UTSA’s dominance over Bexar County as THE Division I team in San Antonio. Prediction: Much like the season opener against Trinity there should be no shred of doubt who is the Alamo City’s team.
A month into the college basketball season UTSA will face its first true road game since challenging Oklahoma. The Roadrunners will land in Phoenix, Arizona to take on a Grand Canyon team that won the WAC Tournament earlier this year in Byrce Drew’s first season as head coach. This WILL be the toughest test for UTSA in 2021 outside of Norman – the Antelopes were a 15-seed just 8 months ago. Prediction: Grand Canyon will likely win what will be its 5th home win of the year but if there’s a way that the Roadrunners can catch the Antelopes by surprise it would be a fantastic win for this program. Someone wins by less than 10 points.
Compliments to UTSA Athletics for scheduling such a terrific set of games: no game at home is perhaps more impressive than Sam Houston State. The Bearkats will move to Conference USA soon enough but this season they will compete in both Grand Canyon & Lamar’s conference – and UTSA’s previous conference – the Western Athletic Conference. I do expect the Bearkats to see some success this year. It may be difficult to fathom but outside of the CIT postseason game UTSA and SHSU played in the Convo four seasons ago, these two programs have not played in nearly a decade. And how long ago was that CIT game? It was Deon Lyle’s last game as a Roadrunner. Prior to the last 10 seasons though this was one of UTSA’s biggest rivalries in the old Southland Conference and the source of many memories for Roadrunners ages 30 years and older. UTSA enthusiasts should circle this game on their calendars as it will be the only Saturday we definitely know UTSA Football will not be playing on and make sure we are in the Historic Convo. Prediction: It will be by the far the most painful of non-conference loses when the Roadrunners lose by 2 or less points in San Antonio in one of the best attended games of the season.
Assuming Jeff Traylor’s football squad lands a bowl game like the Independence Bowl or the New Orleans Bowl you won’t see a whole lot of passionate UTSA sports fans in San Antonio on Friday, December 17th. That is noteworthy because it just so happens that the 17th will be the only non-conference men’s basketball home game this year that lands on a Friday night and it is most certainly a matchup that can heavily be influenced by the number of Roadrunner faithful present in the Convo. That evening UTSA will welcome UT Rio Grande Valley – a team UTSA dominated 7-2 between 1984 and 1997 but who had also rolled the Roadrunners last November 81-64. Prediction: Following the tragic passing of Coach Lew Hill earlier this year, UTRGV will be playing under new Head Coach Matt Figger who had previously coached Austin Peay to a handful of OVC Tournament appearances. Figger and Henson’s individual coaching styles probably makes this game closer than UTSA supporters would be comfortable with but UTSA should have a helpful home crowd advantage with a good pack in attendance.
I’m going to quickly skip ahead to December 22nd when UTSA hosts Our Lady of the Lake. UTSA beat OLLU 102-70 last December so you can infer what I am predicting there but on the day before hosting the Saints the Roadrunners will be in Normal, IL to face the Illinois State Redbirds, arguably the worst Missouri Valley Conference team through the last couple of seasons. This is the game I believe UTSA basketball followers will really need to look to before conference play begins a week later. The MVC is not significantly better than Conference USA in men’s basketball but its ceiling is certainly higher. Beating the doormat of the conference will show you how far this Roadrunner group can make it in conference play. Prediction: Illinois State by 5.
The 2021-2022 Roadrunners probably won’t end the calendar year on a good note by barely losing on the road and coming home to stomp a NAIA school, but I do see UTSA finishing its non-conference slate either 9-4 or 10-3. Perhaps most importantly, UTSA should be undefeated at home throughout November and December. Mid-major success is usually defined by how much you can truly dominate your own conference, but by taking advantage of what non-conference has to offer this season doesn’t have to be a “rebuild” year for Henson. UTSA’s real goal is another winning season and half of that will be accomplished before anyone opens Christmas presents (and I can assure you that that is much sooner than you think it is).
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