1) Shawn Long has a chance as a small-ball 5 at the next level

Long has been on the NBA radar for a few years, ever since a dominant sophomore season when h and Elfrid Payton took UL-L to the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament. Long put up the type of numbers – 18.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks on 52.2% shooting and 42.3% from 3 on 2.3 3PA’s – that will get you noticed by scouts no matter where you play. He has stagnated the last two seasons playing without Payton but he has still shown enough to where he will at least get a shot at the next level, even if he isn’t drafted.

At 6’9 250 with a 7’1 wingspan, Long is the type of big man who would have been a prototype 4 a generation ago but is now better off as a small-ball 5. In that sense, he reminds me a lot of Robert Carter Jr. of Maryland. The difference is that Long isn’t quite as athletic as RCJ – he struggles to finish in traffic and he needs to cut some weight and get into better shape in order to do a better job of sliding his feet and dealing with NBA-caliber athletes at the next level.

It’s hard for him to show what he can fully do at ULL, where he sees constant double and triple teams whenever he catches the ball. There just aren’t many big men in the Sun Belt who have any chance of handling him 1-on-1, though really there aren’t many big men in the country who can handle him period. Long is averaging 18 points, 13 rebounds and 2 blocks on 53% shooting and he would be an All-Conference caliber player no matter the level of the competition.

He is averaging 18.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks a game on 51.6% shooting and he can score from all over the floor. He’s probably at his best when he’s facing up at the high post and using his quickness to get around slower big men, but he’s also capable of establishing position in the low block and scoring from a variety of angles. The most impressive part of his game is how comfortable he is with the ball in his hands and his ability to zip passes through traffic – all those games in the Sun Belt have made him very comfortable dealing with help and he’s just on a whole different level than most of his teammates.

The biggest thing he will need to work on if he’s going to play at the next level is getting into tip-top shape, which would help with his athleticism and his ability to finish in traffic, as well as refining his shot and proving he can be a consistent 3-point shooter. He’s shooting 22% on 2.2 3PA’s this season and if he can shoot like he did as a sophomore (when he was playing with a guard who demanded defensive attention and could consistently create open looks for him) it will open up the rest of his game and all but assure him of a roster spot in the NBA.

As is, Long will probably have to earn his way through the D-League. ULL probably isn’t good enough to make a run in the NCAA Tourney and there won’t be that much excitement about an older prospect from a low-major conference whose numbers have gone in the wrong direction over the last two seasons. The odds are always against a player in the D-League, but Long has the skill-set and the body to where NBA teams will be keeping a close eye on him.

2) The Ragin’ Cajuns supporting cast isn’t quite good enough

Any team with a big man of Long’s caliber has to be taken seriously but there isn’t quite enough around him to where they are going to scare any high-major teams. They lost all theri showcase games in the non-conference by double digits (Miami, Alabama, UCLA) and they would be the 3rd best team in the Sun Belt behind Arkansas Little-Rock and UT-Arlington, if UTA had Kevin  Hervey healthy. They have a 14-10 record and a 10-5 mark in conference play and they will face a tough challenge in upsetting UALR (22-3, 13-2 in conference) if they are going to make the field of 68.

They have a lot of experience and athleticism around Long, as they start two juniors and a senior around him. The problem is that no one else on the roster is a real difference maker. They don’t have a high-level playmaker, another quality big man or a legit secondary option and they don’t have enough three-point shooting to kill teams if they pack the paint to stop Long. They are a decent low-major team whom Long might be able to carry through the Sun Belt Tourney, but they probably don’t have enough to pull an upset in the Tourney.

3) Kevin Hervey is a legit prospect

The real shame about UT Arlington’s season is that they lost their best player (sophomore big man Kevin Hervey) to an ACL injury at the beginning of conference play. They had made a huge splash by upsettig Memphie and Ohio State and taking Texas to OT (all on their home courts) but without Hervey they go from a special team to merely decent. Hervey is legit – he’s an athletic 6’9 210 stretch 4 who was putting up monstrous numbers before the injury – 18.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 0.8 blocks a game on 45.3% shooting and 32.3% from 3 on 5.8 3PA’s. He could play for just about any team in the country and I’m not sure how all the bigger problems in the Metroplex missed out on him.

4) UT Arlington is a program on the rise

The good news for UT Arlington is they don’t have any seniors in their rotation so they will be getting everyone back next season when Hervey is hopefully recovered from the injury.  The other real notable player is sophomore PG Erick Neal, a 5’11 160 jitterbug whose absolutely dynamite with the ball in his hands. Neal jumps off the screen when you watch him – he’s a young guy whose still prone to making the flashy play instead of the simple play but he’s almost impossible to stay in front of on the dribble and he’s a dynamic playmaker who can shoot off the dribble and make every pass in the book. The core of Hervey and Neal has a chance to take UTA to the next level and they could be the best two players on a high-major team by the time they are seniors.

Combine those two with a bunch of athletic guards who can shoot 3’s – UTA has three perimeter players who shoot at least 37% from deep – as well as a 6’8 stretch big man from Europe (junior Jorge Bilbao) and they have a group who will be a serious threat next season. The level of play in the Sun Belt conference is reasonably high (Georgia State famously knocked off Baylor in last year’s Tourney thanks to RJ Hunter’s buzzer beater) and UTA has the pieces to where they could win as many as two games in the Tourney if they get the right draw. This is a team to keep an eye on.

5) Scott Cross is a rising star in the coaching ranks

Cross, a former UTA player, has painstakingly built up the program over the last decade and he has everything a bigger school should be looking for in a coach. If I was TCU, I’d think long and hard about Cross to replace Trent Johnson, who hasn’t been able to get much positive going in his first three seasons in Fort Worth. Hervey and Neal would be the two best players on TCU’s roster and UT Arlington’s program is in better shape than TCU’s at the moment, which kind of says it all. Cross has the three qualities I’d want for that job:

1 – A young coach whose proven he can build a program.

TCU is a job for a young guy looking to make a name for himself, not an older retreat looking to hold on to relevance. You need a lot of energy to undertake that type of rebuilding job country and you need someone whose going to fire up the fan base and bring some energy back into the program. I’m not a huge fan of hiring assistant coaches who have never had a head coaching job and I’m of the opinion that high major programs should focus less on winning the press conference and more on digging through the mid major and low major ranks for guys who have proven they can win. Of course, if Cross goes on a deep Tourney run at UTA, he becomes a guy who could win a press conference too.

2 – Recruiting ties to the Metroplex.

DFW is one of the biggest recruiting hotbeds in the country and any coach whose going to win at TCU is going to have to be able to find local talent and convince them to stay at home. That’s the most impressive part of what Cross is doing – these are all local kids. Neal is from Lincoln (the school which produced Chris Bosh and LeBryan Nash) while Hervey is from Arlington Mansfield. Other than Bilbao,the other four starters as well as most of their bench are from the North Texas area.

3 – Runs a modern offense

You can’t afford to leave any points on the board if you are going to win at a school like TCU and Cross does a good job of maximizing the talent he has by playing a lot of shooters and running a lot of pick-and-rolls. With Hervey out, he has gone small and put three shooters around Bilbao and Neal and they play a very fast and entertaining brand of basketball that allows them to play up to their competition, including  a 75-74 OT victory over UL-L on Thursday. The way UT Arlington plays is a refreshing change of pace compared to some of the brutal slogs that Johnson’s teams have made TCU fans suffer through, and that brand of basketball would help to re-invigorate a fairly moribund program in Fort Worth.

Cross has been a head coach for 10 seasons with a record of 171-135 and has made one apperance in the NCAA, one in the NIT and one in the CIT. Maybe even more impressive, he only has three losing seasons in that span despite being a school with zero tradition (they had never made the Tourney before Cross in 30+ years at the D1 level) or fan support. And he has done all that while still being only 41 years old. The jump from the Sun Belt to the Big 12 would be a big one, but if it’s not TCU he’s going to be at a bigger job soon. File his name away for later because he’s a rising star in the coaching profession.

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