Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru
BELTON- When you coach in the same conference for nine years, as UMHB head men’s basketball coach Clif Carroll has, you get pretty familiar with the various venues across the league.
So Carroll has a pretty good idea of what LeTourneau’s Solheim Arena will look like Monday night.
“That’s a tough gym to play in,” Carroll said. “They’ll have a lot of students there and it’ll feel like there’s 5,000 people in there. It gets ruckus in there.”
Monday’s American Southwest Conference duel, set for 6 p.m. in Longview, between the first-place Crusaders (15-2, 10-2 ASC), and second-place LeTourneau (15-3, 10-3 ASC), is expected to draw a few more fans than usual, for one simple reason: the league championship might just be on the line.
“It’s a big game,” Carroll said. “These are the top two teams in the standings right now. This game is going to go a long way to figuring out who is going to be the champion of our league and host the conference tournament.”
Prior to that matchup, the Cru plays UT-Dallas (12-5, 8-4 ASC) on Sunday at 5 p.m., and the Comets are not a program to be overlooked. The Comets lead the ASC in fewest points allowed per game (72.8), marked by discipline and effectiveness under head coach Terry Butterfield, in his 22nd season.
“We know they’re going to be disciplined,” Carroll said of UTD. “We know they’re going to run things the right way. We’re going to have to get them off their spots to win that game.”
Both matchups are critical at this point in the season, considering the conference’s top four teams are separated by just two games. Three weeks remain in the season, the next two of which will be on the road for UMHB, who is coming off a two-game homestand that featured victories over Hardin-Simmons and McMurry. The Cru is ranked No. 18 in the nation by D3hoops.com, an improvement of three spots from the previous week’s poll.
UMHB has not won at LeTourneau since Feb. 7, 2015, and under Carroll, has not played at UTD, as last year’s scheduled meeting was canceled. But the head coach noted Tuesday that his squad, based on prior experience, will be prepared to embrace the intense atmospheres found over the next two contests.
“These guys have all played high school games with large crowds, and a lot of them have played at NAIAs and D2s that had atmospheres like this,” Carroll of the expected environments at LeTourneau and UTD this week. “It’s going to be fun to play in front of good crowds and good energy. Hopefully we’ll see our team come together because of it.”
One glaring similarity that UMHB will face in both LeTourneau and UTD is the three-point shooting of each team. The Yellowjackets have shot 38.3 percent from beyond the arc, the best mark in the ASC, and UTD is just behind, at 36.6 percent.
“Early in the season, we really struggled contesting threes,” Carroll said. “That’s one thing that we’ve slowly gotten better at, but we’re not there yet. The way our defense is set up, we’d rather you take away rim shots than threes.”
The Yellowjackets of LeTourneau are led by a main rotation of about seven players, with juniors Andrew Eberhardt (20.8 PPG) and Deonte Jackson (19.6 PPG) leading the way. Under the direction of first-year head coach James Wallace, previously an assistant for seven seasons, the Yellowjackets average 86.5 points per game, ranking third in the conference in scoring offense.
“There’s familiarity, and we know they’re good,” Carroll said of LeTourneau. “We’ve tussled with these guys before. We should be ready.”
Carroll is confident in the depth found on the UMHB roster, and the balance of between the team’s guards and forwards. For the team that leads the conference in assists (19.5 per game), functioning as one unit on both ends of the floor will be critical, especially on the road.
“This team is multi-talented,” Carroll said. “The way that we can find ways to get to the rim, and score around the rim is pretty impressive.”
Riley Zayas covers UMHB Athletics as the managing editor of True To The Cru. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org .