For a team nicknamed Roadrunners, it seems fitting to start the season with three consecutive road games. The trip brought UT San Antonio through California, Oregon and Illinois and finished with three losses in three games. But there a few positives to be found in these losses for a roster that seems to be out-matched in the Conference USA. And the Italian Giovanni De Nicolao, interviewed by BasketballNcaa earlier in the season, is one of the building blocks in the rebuilding process of a program that did not have a good season in a long time.
A new beginning
Steve Henson moved to Texas and took over a team who just finished a disappointing season with a 5-27 record (3-15 in the conference). In his first experience as a head coach, after twelve season as an assistant to Lon Kruger (first at UNLV and then at Oklahoma), the Kansas native set himself to a difficult task: to lift a program lacking any relevant results (UTSA’s last season with a positive record was the 2011/2012) and with scarce resources available.
As if it was not enough, the Roadrunners lost their most important player from last season, Christian Wilson. The Baton Rouge junior was suspended for an indefinite period of time after being arrested on misdemeanor assault and possession charges (second time in a year for the latter). A tough blow for the team, considering he was their top player in scoring (16.8 points per game) and assists (4.6 per game) last year.
Moreover, they lost guard J.R. Harris to a knee injury that occurred in the Oregon State game, and there is no timetable set for his recovery.
De Nicolao, a newcomer in the starting spot
The loss of Wilson left a hole in UT San Antonio’s guard rotation. Henson needed someone to fill in the playmaking role, and from day one that someone was Giovanni De Nicolao. In an interview with the San Antonio-Express News on November 6th, coach Henson said: “We didn’t really know, but after the first few practices, it was very apparent that his feel for the game was terrific. He’s played a high level of basketball and he’s not a typical 18-year-old freshman either. He’s more mature and is a bit older than most freshmen coming in. He’s just handled it all very well.”
The following day De Nicolao proved his coach right by nailing the game winner in the friendly match against Arkansas Tech.
In the three official games played so far the guard from Camposampiero was part of the starting five and averaged 9.7 points and 2.3 assists in 24 minutes. He was impressive in the way he handled himself on the floor, and his playmaking has been calm and under control but still capable of accelerating when the situation calls for it. On offense his jumpshot is reliable and, despite average speed and acceleration, he is capable of attacking the rim thanks to well-timed hesitations and first steps. Of course there is a lot to work on: he is turning the ball over 4.3 times per game, mostly because of bad choices or lack of attention. His efficiency on the court needs some improvement (37% from the field), and he should probably do a better job in choosing when and how he should attack the paint. He can keep his balance very easily and he knows how to use his body, but those skills are not always enough to avoid bad contested shot.
About defense, De Nicolao seems to be doing well in the 2-3 zone system Henson employs, the one weapon the team used to avoid blowouts so far against better teams like Fresno State and Oregon State. Still, the Roadrunners tend to foul a lot, and the ex Casale Monferrato is as guilty as the rest of the team: he fouled out in the two games and finished with four in the third.
Sometimes he forces things, sometimes he is right no matter what.
What is left and what to aim for
After a long road trip it is now time to go back home and play in front the home fans: Saturday, November 19th, 8PM EST, UTSA will play Prairie View A&M, in an attempt to grab the first win of the season. The first focus to reach this goal should be defense, since it was so effective in the first three games, and their rebounding, an area of strength in the last two games that brought some real advantage in the game against Fresno State, outrebounded 55-30 by the Roadrunners.
Troubles do being on offense. The team seems static, with a general lack of movement off the ball, and that certainly has to change and change fast. There is also a general lack of scoring power at roster, although there is some hope for Nick Bilingsley, after he scored 17 points in 16 minutes against UIC. Jeff Beverley, and Nick Allen, J. R. Harris (once healthy) and De Nicolao will have to be more productive on offense and ideally keep their scoring in double figures throughout the season.
And if the team will need a few baskets down the stretch, just get the ball in Giovanni’s hands: beside his game winner against Arkansas Tech, the Italian scored big points down the stretch against the Bulldogs and the Beavers, although they were not enough to get the W for UTSA. He is confident, he is not afraid of the moment and he certainly has the talent to be the future Floor General of the Roadrunners, and the hope is that he can be as cold-blooded in the clutch as he was in the last few games.