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Championship Week puts all local teams in the here and now

SMU, TCU and UTA have definitely all had different roads through this college basketball season, with different twists, turns and bumps.

Despite that, all three are essentially in the same position now as Championship Week begins – looking to win their conference tournament to get that automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament. Regardless of what their status currently is in the eyes of the media and the selection committee, that is the one equalizing factor.

For the SMU Mustangs, the time is definitely now, having just won the AAC regular season championship and going into Championship Week still ranked in the top 25. But despite having won the program’s first regular season title since 1988, no one on University Park is comfortable yet, remembering what happened last year,

“We’re a little apprehensive,” coach Larry Brown told The Dallas Morning News. “I didn’t say anything last year about us being slighted because I didn’t think it was fair for teams that got in. But we got slighted. We were 4-6 against top 20 teams. We really had a team that was worthy of going there. When we didn’t get in, it was like a big cloud was over our head. I don’t think anybody here is taking anything for granted.”

“I felt we should have got in last year,” said senior Cannen Cunningham. “But the only guarantee is to win the (AAC) tournament, so that’s what’s on our plate now.

So the Mustangs have turned their focus to the tournament in Connecticut, hoping for a better result than last year, when a first-round bounce against Houston capped off a three-game losing streak that appeared influential in the selection committee passing them over for the NCAAs.

If there’s one program, though, that would be happy to have the NIT come calling, it would be TCU. It almost seems unheard of that Trent Johnson’s program could have any shot at that one year after going winless in the Big 12.

But while the Frogs still finished ninth in the conference, four games back of the rest of the pack, their 13-0 start to the season might help them get in with a surprise performance in the Big 12 Tournament, which starts tonight against a Kansas State team they have already beaten once.

While Johnson has said he hasn’t talked to his team about the postseason, he wasn’t afraid to tell the Morning News they might have been a few games away from the Big Dance, citing close losses to Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma.

“You look at those three games, if we win two out of three, we’re probably a bubble team in the conversation of the NCAA tournament.”

In between those two schools in Arlington, Scott Cross knows his UTA Mavericks will once again need to win the Sun Belt tournament in order to get into the postseason.

If there’s one thing the Maverick had to overcome this season en route to a fifth place finish in the conference, it may be inexperience, with at least four key players being sophomores or younger. They definitely had to deal with on-the-job training, especially with late season injuries to Drew Charles and Johnny Hill.

Having so many young guys playing at once can definitely be a challenge, but Cross has continued to look at the positive.

“It hasn’t been as hard as one would think. Every year has it’s own set of challenges. Our freshman have really tried to buy in to our defensive philosophy and are very intelligent basketball players with great work ethics. I have been very, very pleased with all of them.”

Still, Cross is willing to admit that the future is what looks even brighter for his program.

“I am very excited about the future of UT Arlington Basketball. Next year, we will only have two seniors on our roster, but we will be a much older, more experienced team than our current team. The following year we will be even older and more experienced, so we should have a couple of very promising years ahead of us. “

But neither Cross, Johnson, Brown or any of their players are looking at the future right now, Because this season is still active, and they know that, as Yogi Berra once said, it ain’t over until it’s over.



Blas Perez came through in the end, as FCD’s leading scorer last season finally got a rebound with Quakes goalkeeper David Bingham off his mark in stoppage time to give Dallas an Opening night win.


A healthy, loaded roster could push FC Dallas to the top

There is a growing trend that at least one local team’s season last year was faulted solely on injuries and the belief that everything will be better with everyone healthy. But while many are making that claim toward the Texas Rangers, it probably applies better to the soccer team that will begin its season in Frisco tomorrow.

Yes, FC Dallas did make the playoffs for the first time in three years, but there still might be a sense that things could have been better. Take away a two-month stretch in late spring when Mauro Diaz and Michel were out of action, and Dallas might have been a contender for the Supporters’ Shield, or at least a better seed that could have helped them in the MLS Cup playoffs.

But that year is behind them, and the club at Toyota Stadium has all the tools in place to make a serious run at that Cup, especially since Landon Donovan’s retirement has left the LA Galaxy as no longer the perennial threat it has looked like for years and MLS even more wide open than before.

Could Oscar Pareja’s club be the one to punch through the door? With Diaz, Michel, Fabian Castillo, Blas Perez, David Texeria and last season’s Rookie of the Year Tesho Akindele, the club has as many weapons on offense as anyone in MLS.

It gives Pareja a lot of flexibility to his lineup as who to mix and match on any given day. For a club playing in the hot summer heat of North Texas, especially when they will be competing in the US Open Cup as well as the MLS season, that type of depth is invaluable as Pareja can rest certain players for a particular game.

That isn’t to say the club was willing to rest on its laurels. Despite having a great goalkeeping prospect in Raul Fernandez, they believed they could get even better in the nets. So they scooped up Dan Kennedy from the currently defunct Chivas USA in the dispersal draft to play alongside Chris Seitz.

It might have looked like Kennedy’s future in Dallas would be uncertain given how loyal he he’d been to Chivas USA to the end. But the club and MLS came to terms on a contract extension, with Kennedy replying via Twitter: “Excited to get to work with my new teammates and the staff @FCDallas, and looking forward to making a new home in a great city w great fans”

That’s a good sign for FCD, as they are getting one of the flashiest keepers in the game. One of the few spots worth watching throughout Chivas USA’s struggles was seeing the spectacular saves Kennedy was capable of.

But an even better sign is that he may not need to make as many great saves as he did with his previous team. That’s because here he’ll be behind one of the sturdiest defenses in the league. Led by Zach Lloyd, and Matt Hedges, FCD’s back line could be an absolute brick wall at times that simply did not allow any attacker to get past them, forcing clubs to take low-percentage shots that the goalies could handle with ease.

It all adds up to one of the most complete clubs in North American soccer. And it could be the start of very good things when FC Dallas opens play against San Jose Saturday night at Toyota Stadium.

STARS 3 @ FLORIDA 3 (1-0 SO)